The trio of late chamber works I’ve been listening to this week are not among Bruch’s best-known pieces; they have rarely been recorded or performed, and the Nash Ensemble’s new recording on Hyperion is the first time they’ve appeared together. These two Quintets and an Octet are puzzling works in many ways, not least in their apparent conservatism—written in Bruch’s last years, between 1918 and 1920, they come two decades after Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune but bear no hint whatsoever of being influenced by those mould-breaking works.
Writing in a war-weary and broken Germany, Bruch was surrounded by the revolutionary movements that would spend the next few decades searching for a new way forward, yet these works embody precisely the opposite spirit—it’s hard not to see this as an intentional retreat into comforting tradition in the face of the disquieting facts of massive political change. Much of the music has the feel of Mendelssohn or Schumann about it—there is no trace either of the upheaval of the war or indeed of the illness and personal tragedies that beset Bruch during his final years.
That’s not to say that these are in any way stuffy or unadventurous works; they have a yearning lyricism that harks back to the G minor Violin Concerto (for many years Bruch’s One Hit and still a work which, alas, no review of anything else by him can ever quite avoid mentioning) and the rich texture of five and eight parts gives the sound a depth and mellowness. Although all three are in the ‘concertante’ style, ensuring that first violinist Stephanie Gonley enjoys the majority of the limelight, there’s no shortage of interplay between the parts as well as some delightful melodic turns of phrase. One of my favourite passages is in fact the opening of the very first track on the album—the E flat major Quintet begins low and hushed, developing with rippling quavers in a manner halfway between Smetana's Vltava and Wagner's Das Rheingold, before blossoming into a phrase of great beauty.
If you come to this disc in search of the spirit of the justly famous slow movement of the G minor Concerto, you’re most likely to find it in the Adagio of this quintet—Bruch adopts the same technique of allowing the melody to wander rhapsodically rather than developing it in a conventional motivic way—but I think there’s a greater variety of styles on display in these three chamber works than in the Concerto, and it shows him in a much more nuanced light. There are lightfooted 6/8 scherzi (though not named as such) and martial episodes reminiscent of Schumann’s Konzertstück, and Bruch also shows himself to be a master of the hushed introduction preceding a lively allegro.
The Octet in fact started life as a third Quintet, but Bruch reworked it for larger forces, and it’s a pleasure to hear the weightiness of the double bass in the texture. The general lyricism is similar to that of the other works—indeed it’s incredible to think, listening to this broadly sunny and confident piece, that Bruch would finally succumb to illness only a few months later. There is nothing of the valedictory or the melancholy about this music; the Adagio is a moment of wistfulness than of autobiographical mourning.
As a particular fan of Bruch’s wonderful Romanze for viola, it’s pleasing to be able to sing the praises of some of his other compositions—this triple-bill of chamber works amply demonstrates how much more there is to him than just his famous crowd-pleasing Concerto.