Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brooding and striving, grand and intimate, it's Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy"

by Ken

In Friday night's preview we revisited Beethoven's Choral Fantasy (for piano, soloists, chorus, and orchestra) and Liszt's Hungarian Fantasia (for piano and orchestra) in anticipation of turning our attention today to Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra.

With this installment we have concluded our survey of the three works of Bruch known to most music lovers. We heard the soulful Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra ("A haunting little piece that tells us less than we would think about its composer's roots") and the great First Violin Concerto in G minor ("From brooding depths to sparkling heights") in April.


. . . following Bruch's return to Germany from a trip to Britain -- though not, as far as I know, to Scotland. The Scotland of the fantasy seems to be the brooding world of the romances of Sir Walter Scott, as Bruch establishes pretty clearly at the outset in the Grave introduction, but as we can hear as well in the transformation of the Scottish popular tunes around which each of the four subsequent movements is built. Bruch seems to have thought his extensive use of the harp would evoke the Scottishness he was after. On the title page of the score, the work is billed as Fantasie (Einleitung-Adagio-Scherzo-Andante-Finale) für die Violine mit Orchester und Harfe unter freier Benutzung schottishcer Volksmelodien. (That last part tells us: "with free use of Scottish folk melodies.")

The four movements recall the frequent slow-fast-slow-fast pattern so often used in the old baroque concerto (as in the wonderful Telemann Viola Concerto and Handel organ concertos we heard in November 2010.

The note accompanying the Heifetz stereo Scottish Fantasy (uncredited in the CD edition) says: "Bruch prided himself on the fact that the folk melodies [Bruch] incorporated were not simply extracted from books but discovered during his own travels in Britain." Hey, could be! The violin pedigree of the Scottish Fantasy could hardly be starrier. It was dedicated to the great Pablo de Sarasate, who played it at the Hamburg premiere in 1880, and in preparing it for publication Bruch consulted the great Joseph Joachim.


Once I figured out that we were going to split the honors up among three of the greatest of all violinists at the height of their powers (Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Grumiaux, and David Oistrakh) and a hugely gifted youngster in, astonishingly, her debut recording (Kyung Wha Chung), the math suggested two movements apiece, and I thought it would be well to hear each play a fast and a slow movement.

Then I thought that, to get some feel for the artists' sense of musical progression, it would be well to hear each team in consecutive movements. In the end I split the piece down the middle, between the Heifetz-Sargent and Grumiaux-Wallberg teams in the first half and the Oistrakh-Horenstein and Chung-Kempe teams in the second half -- even though, as with the Introduction and first-movement Adagio cantabile, there is no break between the second-movement Allegro and third-movement Andante sostenuto. I've ruthlessly split them up anyway, and with barely even an apology. (This is it.) We'll hear them properly rejoined when we hear the piece performed as a whole by the younger Heifetz.

There are certainly contrasts between our paired performances, and between the first-half and second-half teams, but I'm if anything more struck by the way different sensibilities wind up expressing much the same thing -- only a little differently. Consider the recitative-like violin solo in the Introduction. ("Recitative-like" isn't my inspiration. Bruch marks the solo "Quasi Recit.") Since we're hearing Grumiaux first, we will hear the whole thing, low and high, mournful and striving, played in about as beautiful a lush romantic tone as the violin is capable of producing. And then we'll hear Heifetz, whose technical command would have enabled him to play the music any damned way he wanted, play it with a simplicity that's simply riveting. (If anyone wants to tell you that Heifetz's playing was "inexpressive," send 'em here.) I don't think these great virtuosos had a wildly different understanding of the music; it just comes out a little, you know, differently.

By the way, I mentioned in Friday night's preview that we were going to hear an especially felicitous battery of conductors, and that's important for a piece that aspires to such grandeur and such intimacy. In our second-half teams we hear two great conductors, Rudolf Kempe and Jascha Horenstein, who are old Sunday Classics friends. (Horenstein's brief celebrity came late, you'll recall. In 1972 I expect he was only too happy to have even a half-record's worth of a major-label accompanying gig -- on the other side of this LP, Oistrakh played the Hindemith Violin Concerto with the composer conducting.) But it would be a mistake to undervalue Sir Malcolm Sargent or Heinz Wallberg, both of whom conducted pretty much anything they were asked, and pretty much always with a distinction and musical completeness superior to many of their more highly esteemed competitors.

Finally, a word about the musical term "fantasy," or "fantasia." First off, if a work's original language is German or French or Italian, the distinction we have in English simply doesn't exist. Bruch called this work a Fantasie, and we can translate it either way. "Fantasy" seems to stress the, well, fantasy element of the piece, whereas "fantasia" sounds more like an actual musical form. But in truth there isn't really a definable musical form.

I noticed in assembling Friday night's preview that I had referred originally to Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and Liszt's Hungarian Fantasia. Those usages suited my ear at the times of those original posts, but in truth they could perfectly well have been switched.

Above the title this score title page says: "To his friend Pablo de Sarasate dedicated." The "his" refers forward to what follows that long, long title: "composed by Max Bruch."

BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46

Introduction: Grave
i. Adagio cantabile

As previously noted, the Introduction and the Adagio cantabile are musically continuous -- the climactic note of the former does double duty as the first note of the latter. But since the CD of the Grumiaux-Wallberg recording has a track point at the start of the first movement proper, in our format we hear them on separate tracks, which I thought might be helpful for hearing the transition more clearly.

The RCA annotator says: "After a solemn introduction for brass and a quasi-recitative for solo violin, the first movement presents the lovely melody of Auld Rob Morris." I would just add that at the moment of the solo entry with the tune, it's remarkable how Bruch has planted the need for a big tune -- and somehow the need for the violin to go almost immediately into those tone- as well as harmony-enhancing double stops. And, oh yes, the tune returns at the end of the second and fourth movements.

Arthur Grumiaux, violin; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg, cond. Philips, recorded Sept. 20-23, 1973

Jascha Heifetz, violin; New Symphony Orchestra of London, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 15 and 22, 1961

ii. Allegro

Here's the RCA annotator: "The second movement is based on the engaging Hey, the Dusty Miller, initially outlined by the orchestra, then by the violinist, and eventually returning in the orchestral strings while the soloist undertakes some virtuoso histrionics." (You'll notice that our musical example of the song credits it to "Ireland." Let's leave that to the Scots and Irish to thrash out.)

Jascha Heifetz, violin; New Symphony Orchestra of London, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 15 and 22, 1961

Arthur Grumiaux, violin; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg, cond. Philips, recorded Sept. 20-23, 1973

iii. Andante sostenuto

The RCA annotator: "The Andante is based on the tender air I'm a-Doun for Lack o' Johnnie. Here too there is extensive technical coloratura, but . . . ."

Kyung Wha Chung, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe, cond. Decca, recorded May 1972

David Oistrakh, violin; London Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Decca, recorded September 1962

iv. Finale: Allegro guerriero

Now let's let the RCA annotator finish the sentence I interrupted above: " . . . but the ultimate brilliance of the violin is reserved for the Finale. At the outset the solo is launched with a passage in triple-stopping, accompanied by the harp. The melody of an old war song, Scot's Wha' Hae, provides the foundation for this, the most brilliant of the four movements."

Kyung Wha Chung, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe, cond. Decca, recorded May 1972

David Oistrakh, violin; London Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Decca, recorded September 1962


This is the first of Heifetz's two recordings, made at a time when the Scottish Fantasy was hardly played.

BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46:
Introduction: Grave; i. Adagio cantabile
ii. Allegro; iii. Andante sostenuto
iv. Allegro guerriero

Jascha Heifetz, violin; RCA Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Sept. 12, 1947

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