Max Bruch is one of those composers who, like Pachelbel, often gets dismissed as a one-trick pony. His First Violin Concerto is one of the most popular pieces in the repetoire - and with good reason. But although some people might be able to hum the ethereal cello rhapsody, Kol Nidrei, that's pretty much it, even for a lot of dedicated lovers of classical music. Which is a shame, because there's some very good works there, under the surface. Bruch wrote two other violin concertos, and several other works for violin and orchestra, and although none of them quite reach the giddy heights of the first, they're definitely worth listening to. His symphonies, meanwhile were, before the advent of Brahms, seen as the best heirs to Beethoven's. He wrote a beautiful Concerto for Clarient, Viola and Orchestra, and his startling Concerto for Two Pianos manages to combine arch-romanticism, with a curious, Bach-like contrapuntalism.
But it's his late chamber music where Bruch really gets interesting.
Because Bruch led a long life, he was born when Mendelssohn was still writing his Violin Concerto, and died in an age when Bartók, Stravinsky and Shostakovich were redefining what music was. Bruch is often criticised for being a reactionary, and it's true that in 1918 he was still writing music more in keeping with the mid-nineteenth century. But what music it is. CPO do a fascinating disc, bring together his Piano Quintet, his String Quintet, and, above all, his String Octet, and in it you can see all the experience Bruch had gathered over his eighty years being put to phenomenally good use. The first movement of the last piece really should be heard more often. Bruch once arrogantly boasted that he was the greatest composer for the violin who'd ever lived, but listening to this, you begin to wonder if he might have had a point. With its sobbing strings, and its swells of emotion, it's perhaps the piece that comes closest to surpassing the Violin Concerto he wrote over fifty years before. The rising first notes give me goose-bumps every time I hear it, and I have to ration myself, otherwise I'd wear its brilliance out by listening to it on repeat.
Honestly, do yourself a favour: Bruch, Chamber Music, Ensemble Ulf Hoelscher, CPO.
Three Symphonies and Concerto for Two Pianos, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln, James Conlon, London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, EMI
Concerto for Clarient, Viola and Orchestra, Paul Meyer, Lyon Opera Orchestra, Kent Nagano, APEX
The Complete Violin Concertos, Salvatore Accardo, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Kurt Masur