My Favorite Recording of Bruch’s Violin Concerto

Max Bruch

I haven’t written a lot about Max Bruch yet. To be a bit more precise, there is not a single blog entry in 5 years that is dedicated to Max Bruch.

Why is that? Maybe because he’s the 19th century equivalent of the One Hit Wonder. Do you know any work beyond his violin concerto (which is to be precise his violin concerto no. 1, but nobody knows the two others)?

Maybe occasionally you’ll find a recording of Kol Nidrei, a orchestral work with a solo cello part. Even more rarely, you’ll get the Romance in F (sometimes coupled with the violin concerto no. 1).

And beyond this, you have to be a proper classical music buff, if you’ve heard his symphonies, his chamber music works, or even his choral works. All pretty much disappeared today. And by the way, not only today, even while he was alive, Bruch complained that he was always reduced to this work, and apparently became quite bitter about it.

Overall, he should probably not have complained to much, his violin concerto no. 1 is still considered part of the list of the 4 great German violin concertos, the others being Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.

So what triggered me to write about this concerto right now? Well a nice coincidence of two of the media I follow for classical music inspiration talked about it at the same time.

The first one is the Swiss radio program Disques en lice, from the French speaking part of Switzerland, which usually compares 6 versions of a given work, with 3 experts in a blind test. If you do speak French, I strongly encourage you to seek this program out, you’ll get it twice per week on their worldwide live stream (select Espace2) or if you are lucky enough to pass through Switzerland, you can even download the podcast (unfortunately the podcast has a rather strict geolocating feature).

So, as mentioned Disques en lice covered Bruch’s concerto on September 23, 2019. At the very same time, the most recent September issue of the French magazine Classica that I subscribe to on my iPad has a monthly section Ecoute en aveugle (blind listening) in which they go through pretty much the entire history of recordings of a given work, select what they believe are the 8 most promising ones, and then again proceed to a blind listening session comparing said 8 recordings.

So, which albums got selected?

Let me start with Disques en lice.

The host, Jean-Luc Rieder, had a hard time choosing, so ended up selecting 8 instead of the usual 6. So during the 2h30 of the program, we compared some legendary classics (Christian Ferras and Jascha Heifetz) from the 1950s, two recordings from the 1980s and 90s, Shlomo Mintz and Kyung-Wha Chung, and four more contemporary versions, notably Renaud Capuçon, Nicola Benedetti, Daniel Hope, and Janine Jansen.

Interestingly enough, the selection by the Classica reviewers Stéphanie-Marie Degand, Fabienne Bouvet and Michel le Naour ended up selecting a choice with only one overlap: Itzak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Maxim Vengerov, Ida Haendel, Isabelle van Keulen, Salvatore Accordo, and the overlap being Mintz.

Now, who won at Classica: the top 3 are Perlman (with Haitink), Stern (with Ormandy), and Milstein (with Barzin). As much as I usually agree with Classica’s reviews, I checked out the winning recording with Perlman, and really didn’t like it.

So, who then is my favourite recording you are going to ask after all this intro?

Well, while often I don’t agree with the winning choices of Disques en lice (I much prefer the winning recordings of the Swiss German equivalent by SRF2, Diskothek im 2.), in this particular case I fully agree with the winning album.

(And allow me to brag a little bit, I actually did recognise that recording blindly, together with my other favourite, Jascha Heifetz).

It turns out to be Janine Jansen’s excellent 2006 recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Janines Jansen Mendelssohn Bruch Concertos & Romance Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Decca 2006

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will have noticed that I’m a big fan of Janine Jansen, nearly as much as of Isabelle Faust. I’ve previously praised her fantastic recording of the Brahms violin concerto with Antonio Pappano, and have even heard her perform said Brahms concerto live with Herbert Blomstedt quiet recently.

This recording is just perfect to me. It combines the appropriate level of romantic engagement with Chailly’s perfect leadership of the magnificent Gewandhaus.

To be fully transparent, this isn’t the first time I write about this album. It is actually featured in my 25 Essential Classical Albums post, but I must admit I focused much more on her Mendelssohn recording in my comment there than on her equally outstanding Bruch.

So you get it, this album is an absolute must have.

And on top of one of the best ever recorded versions of Mendelssohn’s concerto, you even get Bruch’s Romance in F (op. 85).

My review: 5 stars plus…

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Another Excellent Recording of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos by Ronald Brautigam

Mendelssohn again

Pretty much simultaneously two recordings of the Mendelssohn piano concertos were released, by Jan Lisiecki and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as reviewed by me recently, and another one by Ronald Brautigam with the Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens.

So, which one should you get?

Mendelssohn Piano Concertos – Ronald Brautigam – Michael Alexander Willens – Die Kölner Akademie (BIS 2018)

Mendelssohn Piano Concertos - Ronald Brautigam Die Kölner Akademie - Michael Alexander Willens BIS 2019 24/96

Well, it’s not an easy choice.

I won’t do a full review here, as fellow music blogger Konsgaard has already done an excellent job here.

Let me focus more on the differences to Jan Lisiecki. The obvious one is the choice of instruments, Brautigam plays on his typical reconstructed Fortepiano, a Pleyel this time, and the Kölner Akademie clearly plays on historical instruments.

Overall, this gives a rougher, more unpolished, wilder sound than the more polished sound of Lisiecki’s modern Steinway.

Honestly, it’s very hard to choose. Both in their own way are excellent. I probably have a slight preference for Lisiecki and the Orpheus, the sound is just SOOO beautiful.

But then again, Brautigam clearly knows a thing or two about Mendelssohn. Furthermore, the two recordings differ by the choice of the “fillers” that you get on top of the piano concertos.

For Lisiecki, he intersperses some of the beautiful solo piano pieces. Brautigam and Willens instead go for some other lesser know pieces of the piano and concerto repertoire, the Rondo brilliant, the Capriccio brilliant, and the Serenade and Allegro giojoso. None of these works are particularly memorable individually, but taken together they really complement the piano concertos well, and are nice discoveries.

So back to the question, which one to choose? Well, while
my slight preference goes to Lisiecki, in the days of streaming, just check out both and make up your own mind. You won’t regret either of the two.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (eclassical).

UPDATE March 30, 2019: Classica likes this a lot as well giving it 5 stars.

Sophie Pacini – In Between – Truly Passionate Romantic Piano

Schumann and Mendelssohn

I must admit, the core of my listening when I was younger was the Romantic period.

Brahms really was my first love, but also Bruckner, Schumann, and later increasingly Mendelssohn.

I have written previously about Mendelssohn’s solo piano works, e.g. the beautiful recordings of the Lieder ohne Worte (Song without Words) by Ronald Brautigam here and Xavier Perianes here.

But I’ve been a bit too silent about Schumann’s beautiful piano works. I was just recently reminded of Schumann’s tragic life when I saw a re-run of the 2008 German TV production Beloved Clara (Geliebte Clara) that is set in the last years of Schumann’s life when Brahms suddenly shows up, and witnesses Schumann’s increasing mental degradation. The movie isn’t the best ever, but the true story is really fascinating. And actress Martina Gedeck as Clara is good as ever.

So when I quite recently discovered a new release of a young Italian pianist, that of all possible mentors was endorsed and encouraged by none other than the magnificent Martha Argerich, I was curious.

Sophie Pacini – In Between (Warner Classics 2018)

Sophie Pacini is 26 years old, but has already had a quite impressive career, and winning several prices. Somehow she wasn’t yet on my radar screen yet. What a miss. She’s a truly passionate pianist.

Sophie Pacini In Between Schumann & Mendelssohn Warner Classics 2018 24/96 review

This entire album is split between Schumann and Mendelssohn. We really get the full level of energy throughout, I’m really not suprised that Matha endorses her, in many way she reminds me of her.

My favorite piece is already the starting piece. Here we’re getting the Liszt translation of the beautiful love song Widmung. 

This piece really is already fully putting you into the mood, virtuosity, energy, but also a lot of nuance.

When in the second half we get to Mendelssohn, we see that Pacini also is very powerful in the less virtuoso passages, she plays e.g. the beautiful Lieder ohne Worte with a lot of intimacy.

The only thing you could criticize on this album, if you really wanted to, is the occasional moment of “power over precision”, and a lot of use of rubato. But this really is nitpicking.

 

Sophie Pacini is a promising artist to watch (well, don’t believe me, but Martha apparently after initially hearing her play called her Veramente Bravisssima), and I can recommend this album very highly.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (HDtracks)

 

Recommended: The 2nd volume of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words by Ronald Brautigam

Yes, I really like Mendelssohn (this is already my 5th blog entry on him). His works are unfortunately still underrated by many.

And his Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) are truly among my favorite works, quite simple if you listen superficially, but so much beauty and detail can be found in there.

I’ve spoken very highly of the first volume of the Lieder ohne Worte by Ronald Brautigam.

Recently, he has released the second volume, the books 5-8 of these now complete recordings of these beautiful musical poems.

Mendelssohn: Lieder Ohne Worte books 5-8 – Ronald Brautigam (BIS 2016)

Felix Mendelssohn Lieder Ohne Worte Books 5-8 Ronald Brautigam 24 96 BIS 2016

If, like me, you liked the first edition of the books 1-4, this is a clear must have.

It is again played on a contemporary copy by Paul McNulty of a Pleyel piano from the 1830s, with a beautiful mellow sound, which I’ve already praised in my previous review.

The booklet is also very much worth checking out, not only for getting a picture of the instrument being used on p. 30. Horst A. Scholz really does an excellent job in describing the individual pieces. Given that eclassical offers the booklets for free, I highly suggest you have a look.

In short: if you like Chopin or Schumann, and are curious about the sound of a piano the way Mendelssohn may have  heard and played it, go for it!

My rating: 4 stars (although the more I listen to it, the closer this fortepiano recording  gets to the 5 stars I gave to Perianes modern piano version).

You can find it here (eclassical) and here (Prestoclassical)

Update December 28,2016: In their December issue, Classica agrees and gives this album a 4 star rating.