Bruch: Concerto in A-flat minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Opus 88a

MAX CHRISTIAN FREIDRICH BRUCH
BORN: January 6, 1838. Cologne, Germany
DIED: October 2, 1920. Friedenau, outside Berlin

COMPOSED: Bruch composed his Concerto for Two Pianos in 1915, but it is a recomposition of his Third Suite (for orchestra with organ), which occupied him from 1904 to 1915

WORLD PREMIERE: December 29, 1916. Rose and Ottilie Sutro were soloists, and Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philadelphia

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these performances

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 25 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor accounts for nearly all of his exposure in modern concert life, although two other Bruch pieces for solo instrument with orchestra appear occasionally on programs: his Kol Nidrei for cello, and his Scottish Fantasy for violin. His famous violin concerto, a product of the 1860s, is a wonder in its own right, but, for the historically minded, it also helps rectify a curious gap that exists in the active symphonic repertory. A modern listener might assume that after Schumann and Mendelssohn, the German-Austrian musical scene was occupied almost entirely by Johannes Brahms (representing the conservative tradition) and Richard Wagner (who, with Franz Liszt, epitomized the more audacious avant-garde), with Richard Strauss sneaking in at the end of the century. In fact, during the second half of the nineteenth century, Germany was richly populated by excellent composers—Hermann Goetz, Felix Draeseke, Friedrich Gernsheim, and many, many more—but they all were, and remain, overshadowed by Brahms and Wagner.

Bruch was five years younger than Brahms, and he always lived in the shadow of his more august colleague. Bruch admired Brahms, even to the point of making Brahms the dedicatee of his First Symphony, and he accepted that they were not really peers. In 1907, in a conversation with the American musical chronicler Arthur Abell, Bruch offered a poignant but realistic assessment:

Brahms was a far greater composer than I am for several reasons. First of all he was much more original. He always went his own way. He cared not at all about the public reaction or what the critics wrote. ... I had a wife and children to support and educate. I was compelled to earn money with my compositions. Therefore I had to write works that were pleasing and easily understood. I never wrote down to the public; my artistic conscience would never permit me to do that. I always composed good music but it was music that sold readily. There was never anything to quarrel about in my music as there was in that of Brahms.

He was born in 1838, roughly a decade after the passing of Beethoven, Weber, and Schubert, and he died in 1920, three months shy of his eighty-third birthday, when Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók were already famous. Their language was foreign to him. Once Bruch achieved fluency in his mainstream, Germanic, mid-nineteenth-century style, he did not evolve greatly as a composer. What he was composing in 1920 did not differ in its musical fundamentals from what he had written when he first gained public notice a half-century before.

His Concerto for Two Pianos had an awkward history. The work’s genesis dates to April 1904, when Bruch was in Capri for a medically-enforced vacation. “In the evening between eight and nine,” he wrote to his family, “a procession in the narrow streets and alleys of Capri. Leading it was a messenger of sadness with a large tuba on which he played a kind of signal.” He then notated a phrase markedly similar to what would open the Concerto. “Not bad at all,” he continued. “One could make quite a good funeral march out of it! Next came several large flowered crosses, one carried by a hermit from Mount Tiberio. A few hundred children dressed in white and carrying large burning candles, each of them also holding a small black cross. They sang in unison a kind of lamentation that sounded approximately thus”—and then he transcribed nine measures of their song.

At that point he began working on his Third Suite for Orchestra (with a prominent organ part), which incorporated those melodies into the first and last of its four movements. In May 1909, the Suite was premiered at a Promenade Concert in London, with Henry Wood conducting, but Bruch continued to re-write the piece through 1915. In the end, he did not publish it. Instead, he refashioned it into his Concerto for Two Pianos.

He had been approached by a pair of American sisters from Baltimore, Ottilie and Rose Sutro, who had studied years earlier at the Berlin  Conservatory and pursued a reasonably successful career as a duo-piano team until a hand injury put Ottilie out of commission from 1904 through 1910. They made Bruch’s acquaintance during their student years, and in 1911 they played his Fantasia for Two Pianos (Opus 11) in his presence. They were nieces of Adolph Sutro, who made a fortune engineering a mining tunnel in Nevada, founded the San Francisco entertainment complex known as the Sutro Baths (not to mention the Cliff House), and served from 1895 to 1897 as the city’s twenty-fourth mayor. Ottilie and Rose turned out not to be paragons of virtue. They would figure in the history of the G minor Violin Concerto because near the end of Bruch’s life they scammed him out of his valuable manuscript of that work. They claimed to sell it on his behalf in the United States, paid him in worthless marks devalued by German inflation, and made a tidy sum when they finally sold it years later.

Bruch based his trust on the fact that they had championed his Concerto for Two Pianos a few years earlier, introducing it in 1916 in the lofty company of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. What he did not know is that for that premiere, and for a performance with the New York Philharmonic the next year, the Sutros rewrote his piece substantially, altering its structure, changing its orchestration, and simplifying the technical demands to accord with their abilities. Bruch was unaware of this, since they never played it in Europe, let alone that they boldly copyrighted their revision of the piece. In fact, he told Abell, “I will neither permit the work to be performed nor printed here in its form as a piano concerto”—without clarifying why. Not until after Ottilie’s death, in 1970, did materials in her musical estate allow for the reconstruction of the piece in Bruch’s original version.

THE MUSIC  The concerto’s dramatic beginning, slightly suggesting the intense opening of Brahms’s First Symphony, is based on the tuba fanfare Bruch had heard in Capri. This cedes to a fugato section featuring the two pianos—the hymn from the children’s procession—with the “tuba motif” superimposed as it unrolls. The second movement proceeds without a break out of the first, via some dreamy writing for the lower strings, into a fleet expanse of Mendelssohnian vigor and optimism. The third movement returns to wistfulness; its spun-out melody works up to almost operatic passion.

The finale begins by recalling the “tuba motif” from the concerto’s outset and then moves into a free fantasia on the material. The pianos introduce the movement’s principal theme, a grand idea embroidered with swirling scales and arpeggios. Again, the effect seems grounded in the musical ideals of Mendelssohn, who had died nearly seven decades before this piece saw light of day. The harmonic language may perhaps be enriched by the vocabulary of Saint-Saëns (one can hear his Organ Symphony, from 1886, lurking somewhere around the fringes), but on the whole Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos is a fly preserved in the amber of an earlier time—or, better put, a beautiful butterfly.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC

Recordings: Katia and Marielle Labèque with Semyon Bychkov conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Philips)  | Nathan Twining and Martin Berkofsky, with Antal Doráti conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics)  |  Güher and Süher Pekinel, with Neville Marriner conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Musical Heritage Society—out of print, but probably available through Internet sources)

ReadingMax Bruch: His Life and Works, by Christopher Fifield (Boydell Press)


(May 2018)