Fanfare Magazine Mar/Apr 2015

Max Bruch found the popularity of his First Violin Concerto (“the” Bruch Concerto) irksome, believing his later concerted works for violin to be just as good. Recordings of the Third Concerto, in particular, have been scarce, although Salvatore Accardo and Kurt Masur recorded the composer’s complete works in the genre, including a number that might have been—or grown into—Bruch’s fourth concerto. At first blush, the Third Concerto seems more traditional than either the First or the Second, but even in its first movement the lyrical theme doesn’t appear in the orchestral tutti, having been held in reserve until the violin has entered. But there’s more to tradition than a simple ordering of themes, and in its writing for the violin, the work presents the soloist in passagework that might have come from the pen of a diatonic Ludwig Spohr. Jack Liebeck (and Martyn Brabbins) not only storm the craggiest Brahms-like passages, but the soloist in particular gives a virtuosic account of the first movement’s thematic development and a heartfelt one of the theme that listeners might come, upon greater familiarity, to regard as perhaps Bruch’s most touching. Liebeck and Brabbins bring appealing simplicity and warmth to the second movement, more in their reading than a simple filler (Tully Potter’s notes explain that the composer in fact added the last two movements to what he had conceived as a free-standing concert allegro). In fact, at 10:49, it isn’t slight in any way. The themes of Bruch’s violin concerto finales display a sort of Wittgensteinian family resemblance (the martial first theme of the first movement in this case also exhibits it); but this similarity may not enhance the attractiveness of movements that could arguably be taken as the composer’s weakest in melodic invention. Liebeck plays the lyrical episodes, even if they don’t soar so high as the famous one in the First Concerto’s finale, with winning sensibility, and he’s commanding and brilliant by turns in the technical passages. In all, if he can’t make this movement surge with Bergsonian élan vital, he acquits it of the charge Paul Stoeving brought against Bruch’s later music of going “four-abreast” (even if Brabbins doesn’t bring Masur’s craggy rhetoric—which Accardo channels—to the opening movement). In Fanfare 32:3, I reviewed a collection of Bruch’s violin concertos and Scottish Fantasy played by James Ehnes (CBC 5245) and found myself making excuses for Ehnes, who nevertheless seemed to be making the best case for the later works since the earlier recordings by Accardo. He didn’t quite match the orchestra in majesty, and on and on. No such excuses need be sought for Liebeck’s versions of the Third Concerto (or the Scottish Fantasy, either), and those who seek to discover for themselves whether Bruch had declined by the time of his last numbered concerto may find to their delight in this recording that he didn’t.

In programming the Scottish Fantasy (which, as Potter points out, Bruch once identified in a program as his Third Concerto), Liebeck runs the risk of comparison to Jascha Heifetz (who reportedly liked it best of all concertos; he recorded it three times and included it in his television appearance), David Oistrakh (who recorded it twice), and Michael Rabin, not to mention Alfredo Campoli and Kyung-Wha Chung. But he and Brabbins sound atmospheric enough to hold their own in the introduction, and almost as suave as Oistrakh if not so taut as Heifetz in the following Adagio cantabile. In the ensuing Allegro, he suffers more, perhaps from propulsive over-drive and perhaps from an inability to put across the double-stopped passages with the panache they demand. Brabbins once again provides a loamy backdrop; and he and Liebeck conjure sweet magic in the transition to the slow movement. Liebeck’s 1785 “Wilhelmj” Guadagnini sounds particularly sweet-toned in the filigree he weaves around the Scottish folk song that provides the basis of that movement. Liebeck plays the war-like theme of the finale with martial authority, but perhaps his sensibility in the lyrical passages eclipses it.

Even those who find Heifetz’s performance of the Fantasy to be nonpareil should find much to admire in Liebeck’s version, and his playing in the Third Concerto sets a sort of new standard that should inspire its devotees and stimulate others to re-evaluate the piece’s strengths and weaknesses—and the recording transmits everything with opulent clarity. Most enthusiastically recommended. 

Robert Maxham