Classical: A new old romantic

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The Independent Culture
BRUCH: LSO/HICKOX BARBICAN, LONDON

IF ALL that mattered in music was melody, then Max Bruch would be rated a true master. One easily forgets that, like fellow late-romantics Glazunov and Gliere, Bruch lived some way into the 20th century, far enough, in fact, to become a musical anachronism, though his amiable, rich-toned scores are invariably a source of pleasure. Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra are therefore to be congratulated for preparing a twin- concert retrospective of the man they call "The Forgotten Romantic". Happily, they are also taking Bruch's orchestral music into the recording studio.

Hickox directed some admirably forthright performances, starting on Thursday night with seven of Bruch's 15 Swedish Dances - attractive miniatures, skillfully scored though you would never have guessed their thematic provenance. The Fourth Dance recalled the Highland breezes of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy; the Fifth wore a distinctly Dvorakian demeanour; the Sixth could as well have fallen from Elgar's desk, and the Seventh suggested more than a whiff of Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Concerto for Two Pianos which followed has a bizarre history. Arranged from an earlier piece for the piano-playing Sutro sisters, it disappeared from view until Ottilie Sutro died in 1970 at the age of 98. It transpires that the Sutros abandoned Bruch's original and simplified the piano parts to suit their own modest means. The score we hear today has to be reconstructed from disparate sources though, to be honest, I'm inclined to believe that the Sutros did Bruch a favour. On the evidence of Thursday night's performance, the "original" piano writing is so texturally thick that a little thinning out would probably have helped Bruch's cause.

Hickox's presentation had Michel Beroff join forces with Georges Pludermacher (replacing the indisposed Jean-Francois Heisser) for a powerful, if occasionally unsynchronised, performance, which was at its best in the fugal second movement. Better by far were the LSO strings in the posthumous Serenade on Swedish Folk Melodies, a charming four-movement work which could sit happily alongside Grieg's Holberg Suite or Dvorak's Serenade for Strings.

For this listener, however, the finest of Bruch's purely orchestral works are his three symphonies. Thursday's concert ended with the Third, verdant music, vigorous and tuneful and at its most fetching in the first two movements. The third movement - a Scherzo - ends with something rare in Bruch, a musical surprise, but I much prefer the Mendelssohnian Scherzo in the First Symphony. Hickox's lusty reading of the First was prefaced at Sunday night's concert by the memorable prelude to Bruch's second opera, Die Loreley, with the remaining Swedish Dances and the ubiquitous (but still adorable) First Violin Concerto filling the first half of the programme. Joshua Bell gave a flamboyant, if occasionally discoloured, display of the work, though the less familiar orchestral music left an even stronger impression. One hopes that future initiatives might bring the Second Symphony and rarer violin works to the Barbican.

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