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Max Bruch: Max Bruch (b. Cologne, 6 Jan 1838; d. Friedenau, 2 Oct 1920).
'In personal appearance, Max Bruch is by no means as majestic as one would suppose from his works', states that delightful Victorian compendium Famous Composers and Their Works, published in 1893. There can be very few modern admirers of the composer who would think anything of the sort. They probably know him by two of his three violin concertos, the Scottish Fantasy, and the once-popular Kol Nidrei; a few may have heard his second symphony, which receives an occasional broadcast. All these are notable for a flow of melody that occasionally verges on schmaltz. In fact, during his own time, Max Bruch was regarded mainly as a choral composer of genius; and in England, he was admired as a worthy successor of Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Benedict. All that is now forgotten, even in Germany.
Max Bruch was born in Cologne; his family were typical members of the German middle classes, his father being in government employ. His mother's family were musical, and Max Bruch himself proved to be immensely gifted in this direction. When he was nine years old, some of his compositions were shown to the famous Cologne conductor Ferdinand Hiller, who immediately took charge of the prodigy's education, and trained him so well that he won the Frankfurt Mozart scholarship at the age of fourteen with a string quartet. A generation earlier, Max Bruch would probably have been rushed all over Europe showing off his skill to aristocratic audiences. Instead, he spent the remainder of his teens studying under such distinguished teachers as Reinecke and Breuning, and travelling at a leisurely pace around Germany's musical centres, learning his trade in the pleasantest possible manner. A comic opera, Scherz, List und Rache (based on a rather trivial early comedy of Goethe), was performed when he was twenty, but was only moderately successful; it appeared in due course as his Opus 1. His father died when Max Bruch was twenty-three, and Max Bruch set out on another tour of Germany and Austria, finally pausing for four years in Mannheim, where he settled down seriously to composition. A second opera, The Lorelei (which Mendelssohn had been working on at the time of his death) proved altogether more successful, although it, too, slipped out of the repertoire.
Max Bruch was in his twenty-sixth year when he achieved his first undiluted success, a choral work entitled Frithjof, based on the Nordic saga of that name. It was an impressive work for male chorus and soprano; much of the music was sombre, and seemed to evoke the great snow-bound forests of the north - a kind of anticipation of Sibelius. This made Max Bruch famous far beyond Cologne and Mannheim, and he travelled as far as Brussels and Paris to conduct it. This was quickly followed up by the almost equally successful Sehbn Ellen, based on the story of a Scottish girl who heard the bagpipes of the relieving army at the seige of Lucknow, and prevented the garrison from surrendering to the merciless Sepoys. It was all magnificent, stirring stuff of the sort that aroused martial rumbles in the breast of every right-thinking Victorian, and in no time at all Max Bruch found himself regarded as Mendelssohn's successor and the equal of Brahms. A successor to Frithjof followed, based on the same saga, then yet more martial choral works such as Odysseus, Arminius and Achilleus.
In 1866, Max Bruch produced the work by which he is best known today, the first violin concerto in G minor. It was written for Joachim - for whom Brahms wrote his own concerto a few years later - and the first thing that strikes the listener is its incredible, flowing inventiveness and a lyrical warmth reminiscent of Mendelssohn. In the following year, he became director of the court orchestra at Schwartzburg-Sondershausen, and, like Haydn, the servant of a prince. (Spohr and Weber had been among his predecessors there.) When he left, after three years, Brahms applied - unsuccessfully - for the position. Max Bruch moved to Berlin for two years, then to Bonn, and his success and fame grew with a series of choral works like Leonidas and Thermopylae. He even came to Liverpool for three years, as the successor of Sir Julius Benedict, and was tempted to settle in England permanently; but his German accent and teutonic perfectionism caused friction with the chorus and orchestra of the Philharmonic Society, so he moved on to America to conduct more concerts of his music, then returned to Germany. The second violin concerto in D was composed for Sarasate and was almost as successful as the first, although modern audiences rate it far lower. The Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and the Kol Nidrei for 'cello and orchestra were composed during his English residence; the latter is probably responsible for the general (but mistaken) impression that Max Bruch was Jewish. Max Bruch also acquired a German wife in England.
Back in Germany-thistimein Breslau-his reputation continued to rise until by the mid- 1890s, he was generally ranked as one of the major composers of the 19th century. But from then on, his life was all anti-climax. In the age of Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, he was still writing and thinking in terms of the age of Mendelssohn. The fashion for choral music evaporated, even in England, and Max Bruch suffered the same fate as Stainer, Stanford and Parry. A third violin concerto in D was generally judged much inferior to the first two, more prolix and less melodious. The wonderful, soft-flowing melodies of the first two concertos, and the Kol Nidrei, kept them in the concert repertoires, but rather as relics of a bygone age. The aggressive German traditionalist Pfitzner tried to revive The Lorelei without success. Max Bruch found this lack of appreciation incomprehensible, and became embittered. He was a rather closed-in personality, inclined to be self-centred and dictatorial - hardly the type to grow old gracefully. The death of his son in World War I plunged him into depression. The music of younger composers like Weill and Hindemith must have struck him as horrible cacophony. He died in 1920 -the year after his wife- at the age of eighty-two, exhausted but still defiant.
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