Ignaz BRÜLL (1846-1907)
Overture, Macbeth [8:32]
Serenade No 2 in E, Op.36 [18:50]
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 41[30:57]
Symphony in E minor, Op 31 [31:12]
Serenade No 1 in F, Op 29 [35:39]
Ilya Hoffmann (violin)
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Laus, Marius Stravinsky
Belarussian State Symphony Orchestra/Marius Stravinsky
rec. 2007-2011, Robert Sammut Hall, Malta; Minsk, Belarus
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9103 [58:18 + 67:11]
Ignaz Brüll was a Moravian-born pianist and composer who lived and worked in Vienna. His operatic compositions included Das goldene Kreuz (The Golden Cross), which became a repertory work for several decades after its first production in 1875, but eventually fell into neglect after being banned by the Nazis because of Brüll’s Jewish origins. He also wrote a small number of finely-crafted works for the concert hall and recital room, in a conservative musical style, much in the vein of Mendelssohn and Schumann. In addition he was a highly-regarded concert pianist, and a regular playing-partner of Brahms, when they gave private performances of the latter’s own four-hand piano-duet arrangements of his latest works, where Brüll became a prominent member of Brahms’s circle of musical and literary friends. However, even his close friendship with Brahms could not save him from anti-Semitism, which resulted in nearly all his works being ignored by the musical establishment for more than a century. Indeed, Hitler ordered that musical scores by Jewish composers should be sought out and burnt. Fortunately, however, many of them, including Brüll’s were well hidden.
This double CD of some of Brüll’s orchestral music opens with his Concert Overture Macbeth, where, unlike an operatic opera whose rationale is to present some of the associated opera’s best tunes in a usually-exciting potpourri format, here the emphasis is more about a psychological investigation of the main thrusts of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy – with some of the action thrown in. From the very outset, it’s well-crafted and well-orchestrated, with some exciting moments, none more so than the triumphant march towards the end, which Gareth Vaughan, in his interesting and well-produced sleeve note assigns “to the defeat of the tyrant king”. Given that this isn’t an operatic overture per se, Brüll still seems to have got to the very nub of the drama and produced music to match.
Brüll wrote three Serenades, and now follows the second of the set, in E, Op 36. Essentially requiring an orchestral of classical dimensions – with three flutes, rather than two, and no trombones – it is cast in three movements. Horns open the opening Allegro con brio, and there is an overwhelming sense of pastoral calm at the start, which some gentle string accompaniment later enlivens. The movement, while pleasant enough, is somewhat uneventful, though. The second movement – a pleasing little march – holds the listener’s attention once again, where, in the central section, Brüll’s requirement for three flutes becomes apparent, as it allows him the luxury of true three-part harmony over the strings, in a lighter section, where hints of Mendelssohn prevail. The finale opens delicately again, which leads to an attractive-enough little string melody. Brüll manipulates his thematic material adeptly, with little or no sense of the academic while gently flexing his contrapuntal muscles. Gradually he works everything up into a coda where strings are kept fairly well-occupied to the end – entertaining overall, but without a great deal of musical substance.
The first CD concludes with Brüll’s Violin Concerto in A minor. Here conductor Michael Laus points out the problems he encountered, given that the only published score is a piano-score version (1890), as well as a hand-copied orchestral one, but where a significant number of wrong notes had been transferred in the process. The concerto opens with a very short 11-bar orchestral exposition, with the soloist entering within a few seconds. The music is dark and dramatic at the start, a mood which is maintained as the lyrical second-subject is introduced. This has shades of Brahms, as, indeed does the concerto itself although, unsurprisingly, Dvořák can be heard at times – even shades of Elgar in some of the more sombre moments. Brüll includes a short, semi-accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and makes good use of interplay between the violin and various wind instruments. There is just that little bit of extra motion in the final bars, but the music never really loses its brooding, minor-key character throughout.
Horns open the slow movement, in the relative-major key of C, as the soloist sings its romantic melody over the top. The melancholy of the previous movement is carried over here, to great effect at times, producing one of those truly-memorable concerto-slow-movements, rather like the Violin Concerto from Karl Goldmark (1830-1915), which happens to share the same key. Full marks, incidentally, to the horn section of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra here, and to the first horn in particular. The Finale has a dance-like quality to it, and while it remains stubbornly in the minor key – at least for the opening – it is lighter in character overall than the two previous movements, even if Brüll reserves the more lyrical writing for the episodes. The metre changes from three to two to ensure as effective a denouement as possible, but even now lyrical elements aren’t far away. In fact, only for the last thirty seconds or so, as the key firmly moves to the tonic major, is there really any feeling of genuine exuberance and emotional release.
CD 2 opens with the composer’s Symphony in E minor, Op 31, completed around 1880. The opening Moderato begins eerily in the low register, before settling into a somewhat impassioned movement. Brüll works out and develops his material effectively enough, which almost feels as if it’s leading somewhere, though, to be fair, still in a rather loose and inchoate fashion. This is followed by a somewhat dainty and light Allegretto in the tonic-major key, which includes rustic elements, as well as some attractively-shaped romantic melody, before accelerating to a more exciting close. The ensuing Scherzo is not overly brisk, but maintains an air of some jollity, as well as incorporating occasional more lyrical moments along the way. Again, the music, always seems to be searching for a direction, and it eventually just stops, rather than coming to a considered close. The Finale begins Moderato and seems to hark back to the subdued tones of the opening movement, even if Brüll’s main theme here is quite attractive in itself. All the time there is a sense of building towards something new and more exciting, and this eventually does happen some four minutes or so into the movement, when the Allegro assai theme, with its busy string figurations, takes over. Here, though, momentum is not really maintained, until this new theme is taken up again, after which eventually a definite push to the end can gradually be sensed, with a brief quickening of tempo. However, yet again Brüll interrupts proceedings with a pause – there are a few slow bars and one more pause – before the way is finally paved for a fairly exciting finish, which makes use of the Allegro assai string figure once more. Here the composer appears to have one last card to play, by ending the symphony in the major key just at the eleventh hour.
The disc ends with the Serenade No 1 in F, again scored for a conventional classical orchestra, unlike the preceding Symphony, which had required two more horns, three trombones and tuba. Unlike the second Serenade, Brüll casts his first example in six movements. A bold and tuneful Allegro is followed by the first of two Intermezzi – here rather like a siciliana in the minor key – after which comes a Scherzo, which bustles along quite nicely in duple time, before a lyrical and nicely-expressive Trio temporarily interrupts the flow before the Scherzo returns. Once more the composer seems unable to refrain from just one more brief lyrical interjection, before swiftly rounding the movement off. The Andante ma non troppo is essentially a slowish march in the minor key, with a middle episode in the major, which returns at the end, though the movement still ends as it starts, in the minor. The second Intermezzo is in the major key, gently-undulating rhythmically, and not unlike the previous movement either in character, or in the alternation of major and minor tonality. The Finale (Allegro) starts busily enough, and builds, over a dominant pedal, to a joyous full-orchestra declamation of the opening rondo theme. The movement then continues in much the same vein, and Brüll, on this occasion, really seems to go to town on ensuring an effective finish, guaranteed to elicit immediate and enthusiastic applause from the Viennese public of the time.
Previously, all the works heard on the present two-CD set had been released by Cameo Classics, then as part of a larger set of CDs devoted to ‘Music of 19th Century Jewish-German Composers’, which was reviewed on MusicWeb International in 2014. In that review, credit was rightly afforded to Cameo Classics for bringing Brüll’s music, and that of his fellow-Jewish contemporaries to the attention of the musical public, and especially those who would have a particular affinity for orchestral scores that would sit comfortably alongside those of Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, and others.
As is nearly always the case, the sleeve notes will be very positive and encouraging. After all, who would rush out to buy a CD where the music is described as ordinary, mundane, and something not worth discovering. We will usually see references to a composer’s ‘individual voice’ but, for example, as far as Brüll’s Violin Concerto, where the term crops up, you’d be quite hard-pressed to define it. True he has a real penchant for writing attractive and very expressive melodies, and the lyrical moments in all the works heard on this CD are undeniably the best parts. He does come up with some good ideas in the faster, more turbulent sections where, as in the Macbeth Overture, the result can be quite effective and holds the listener’s attention. But you only have to listen to the Fourth Symphony of Brahms – also in Brüll’s chosen key of E minor and written just five or so years later – and the difference between the two respective symphonies becomes so very apparent. Brahms has his lyrical moments, as well as passages of great momentum and drive, but these all fit together and evolve in a logical way, and always with a much clearer sense of direction and purpose.
There is really just one thing more to say about the Cameo Classics release(s). While the overall playing is generally acceptable and does no real disservice to the score, it is evident that, good as they are, and clearly they give their all, we are not talking about two leading international orchestras, and, while Hoffmann makes a stalwart effort in the Violin Concerto, the performance is certainly not unblemished.
Back in 1999 Hyperion did include Brüll’s two piano concertos as No 20 in their Romantic Piano Concerto Series, but here they chose to use a leading UK orchestra, conductor, and soloist to do the job. Notwithstanding financial restraints, it would always seem the best course of action to use the best-available resources to present something new to the CD-buying public, as you would if your house was on the market, or a holiday-company was trying to entice you to pastures new.
Philip R Buttall
Previous review: Michael Wilkinson