Max Bruch's first Violin Concerto joined the repertory thanks to many factors. It has soaring melodies, lush and passionate orchestral writing, and devilishly difficult virtuoso passages for the violin. More important, however, was the work's acclaimed champion, Joseph Joachim. In addition to Bruch's Concerto, Joachim was responsible for bringing the Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn violin concertos into the orchestral fold. None was more dear to him than the Bruch, however, which he called "the richest, the most seductive" of the lot.
Max Bruch was already a respected composer as a youth. By age 20, he was teaching in Cologne and had written and produced his first opera. But somehow, Bruch was almost too much of his day, not quirky enough to be remembered and not enough of a revolutionary or bad boy to become notorious. Today, he's known almost exclusively for the Violin Concerto, though his Kol Nidrei, for cello and orchestra, and his Scottish Fantasy, for violin and orchestra, are still performed with some regularity.
Bruch is known for his love of folk music, and this work displays that affinity from the opening moments. The Vorspiel (Prelude) begins as the violin intones a passionate and earthy lament. This sets the stage for an only slightly more robust Allegro moderato, but also prepares us for the longing of the Adagio to come. This all-too-short first movement is compelling, filled with melancholy and impassioned melodies set against a rich orchestral background that only enriches the soloist's mournful utterances. (The first movement is so short in fact, that Bruch himself thought the designation of "concerto" might be misleading.)
With a nod to the Vorspiel, Bruch's first movement yields to the luxurious Adagio, which is as rich and seductive as any in the genre. The violin spins out mournful tunes, adding to the luscious lamentations of the first movement. The Finale is a gypsy romp, a virtuosic display of technical bravado that perfectly balances the Concerto, and also displays keen emotional intensity. It is just this balance of approachability, quirkiness, bravado, and passion that have ensured this work its continued place in the repertory.
- Dave Kopplin