BRUCH: Suite on Russian Folksongs, op. 79b. Serenade on Swedish Melodies, op. posth. Swedish Dances -- Orchestra Suites Nos. 1 and 2, op. 63.
SWR Radio Orchestra of Kaiserslautern/Werner Andreas Albert.
CPO 777 385-2 (F) (DDD) TT: 58:22

Light music and no apologies. Max Bruch, enormously influential in his own day, has for us become the composer of three pieces: Kol Nidre, Scottish Fantasy, and the first violin concerto. The last probably counts as his best work. Bruch in general seemed to lack that extra spark that distinguishes a great composer. The ideas don't quite come up to scratch. Hitches and long make-time sections plague most of the larger-scaled works. Nevertheless, he wrote an awful lot, and every now and then, somebody digs into the pile and comes up with something really interesting. If nothing else, Bruch had solid craft. His students (among whom we find Vaughan Williams) adored him as a teacher, although they tended to deem his music old-fashioned, which after a point, it was.

Bruch had a penchant for musical (and literal) travel. Hence, works like the Scottish Fantasy and the ones here. It's part of the Nineteenth-Century attraction to exotica, seen in Rimsky's Capriccio espagnole, in Brahms's Zigeunerlieder, and in several fantasies by Liszt. After all, Russia and Sweden were geographically, if not culturally, at the edges of the earth. Not many travelled to Russia. Other than native speakers, few spoke the language. Bruch continues in the tradition of Brahms's Hungarian Dances, Dvorák's Slavonic Dances, and Grieg's Norwegian and Symphonic Dances. It raised a problem as I listened. Nothing in Bruch's suites measures up to anything in the works mentioned. However, everything is very well-made. The orchestration enchants the ear. As long as you keep your expectations modest, you will likely enjoy it, as you would take pleasure in something like Davies's "R. A. F. March." I will except the finale of the Russian suite from my overall severity. Bruch arranges what we know as the "Volga Boatmen's Song" not as the bit of lugubrium you'd expect, but as a lively dance. It's the one thing from the disc's program I remember in detail, mainly because it's so much fun.

Albert and his radio band do a fine, professional job. I'm not sure that Stokowski or Szell could do any better. The attraction is mainly the repertoire. I hope this signals more substantial Bruch -- nearly-forgotten works like the concerto for two pianos or some of the chamber music.

S.G.S. (December 2009)