Fritz BRUN (1878–1959) Complete Orchestral Works
Bernadett Fodor (mezzo-soprano); Tomás Nemec (piano); Claudius Herrmann (cello); Peter Lloydl (organ)
Bratislava Symphony Sextet
Bratislava Symphony Choir
Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. 2003-2015, Bratislava & Moscow BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95784 [11 CDs: 716:50]
Good yet unlikely things do happen and this boxed set is proof positive. Swiss composer Fritz Brun had an imagination rooted in tonality and melody. Just to place him in time he overlaps the century-straddling dates of Vaughan Williams. Among much else Brun wrote four string quartets (1898, 1921, 1943, 1949), a cello sonata (1952), a piano quintet (1902) and two violin sonatas (1920, 1951). However, it was his orchestral music that found discernment and justified valour in the recorded music world of the 2000s. I say valour not because of anything tough or rough in Brun’s creative make-up but because, like Huber and Flury, his overwhelmingly tonal music seemed to shrink away from the enthusiasm and affection of musicians and the public; and this even during his own lifetime. In general, concert performances remained obdurately resistant to presentation although I notice that one studio broadcast of the Second Symphony was aired in the “wee small hours” in the last decade by the Bern Symphony conducted by Dmitri Kitajenko. That was very much against the resistant spirit of the times.
The present set which derives from Guild discs, with one from Swedish company Sterling, has Swiss-born conductor Adriano at its pulsing heart. Its only drawback might come from that, at one time or another, all of these discs have been issued individually. That does not detract from a great enterprise, and one in which Brilliant Classics have worked with Adriano and the original labels to present a single compactly handsome Edition of all Brun’s orchestral works, now at bargain price.
The First Symphony is the work of a 23-year-old. It is introduced to us in the confident hands of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, who are also to be heard in all Brun’s other nine symphonies apart from the Eighth. The music of the First storms onto the scene in dense Brahmsian cumulo-nimbus. These clouds, having asserted themselves, soon part to speak in a serenity akin to the most temperate pages of the Hamburg composer’s Second Symphony. That sunlit mood carries over into the second movement’s Adagio non troppo. Brun surges forward with nothing short of brassy ebullience in the third movement. This is romping confidence but ultimately resolving into gloom. The finale of this 35-minute work speaks of the smiling self-assurance of youth and bubbles and shouts with the example of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. That said, it reaches the consummation of journey’s end in moody calm.
The Overture to a Jubilee Celebration was written in 1950 and is in an idiom that could have come from the 1880s. I do wonder about the title simply because the music often has an abrasive or poetic ‘blade’ or is simply too serene for jubilee celebrations. It’s more often taken up with the complexities of the Tragic Overture than Academic Festival. The performance is fully competent … and more. It’s an enjoyable piece with a mercurial ambiguity of mood to relish.
The Second Symphony speaks in amiably determined terms from the years before the Great War. Again, Brun’s language is expansive, Brahmsian and often discursive rather than concentrated. More often than not when Brun sets off to encourage us with some furious moods things resolve into either Apollonian heights or a calm and reflective pastoralism. In that sense this work put me in mind of the Danish composer Ludolf Nielsen.
The Symphonic Prologue dates from 1944 when the world had turned on its dark side for the second time. It was premiered when the Second World War had finished. This 20-minute piece, with a Reger-like title, adopts livery still noticeably rooted in Brahms. It’s an ‘active’ score with ideas and incidents that flow in a deluge that holds the interest but in addition has many poetic moments where the pulse finds some quietude if not peace. The final five minutes grasp triumph and shout its praise with belligerence.
In 1919 Brun’s Third Symphony which runs to over an hour (the longest of the ten) broke new structural ground. In addition, it’s the one of the ten which came out on Sterling rather than Guild. It comprises three movements but the central ‘spar’ is a Theme and Variations (on a Ticinese Epiphany Carol). Two imposing ‘twenty’ minute dolmens provide the outward facing columns. The composer said of this discursive work that it “reflects impressions of Alpine wandering”. Although there are moments of smooth Brun-typical serenity (including the close of the first movement) quite a few passages seem ‘awkward’ or ‘gangling’ in their hulking magnificence. This is presumably completely consistent with the Alpine eminences. The work starts in a most strikingly brooding intensity, as if Brun had been listening intently to Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. The central movement is in seven tracks reflecting the theme and six variations, the last two of which together run to twelve pensive, serene and then cloud-occluded minutes. The finale is a large Allegro non troppo which sports some playful and endearing writing for woodwind. This in turn gives birth to boisterous pages that reminded me of Parry in his Fourth Symphony. The brass benches play up to the loftiest standards (tr.9 15:20) - you might have thought this was Chicago rather than Moscow. Next time someone asks you about music with mountains as a subject you can add Brun to a list that also includes Delius, Strauss and Hovhaness.
The 47-minute Fourth Symphony dates from 1925 and, more than the at times craggy Third, is an exemplar of a tranquil soul. This is easily accessible with a ‘toasty’ horn solo over violins in the first movement. The whole communicates as a largely smiling philosophical disquisition - prone to exploring the byways of an argument but never losing sight of the main path. Blazing moments reach out towards the listener but they do not obstruct the philosophical burden and stamp an aureate seal on the finale. Adriano and his orchestra appear to be faithful servants of Brun’s predilections.
Two years before his death Brun wrote the ten-minute Rhapsodie. It was his final orchestral work and in Adriano’s opinion is “perhaps one of his least attractive”. It is a stirringly cantabile work with a strong string-instrument 'signature'. Backward-looking in style, its unblushing romanticism speaks, as I have said before, of a composer gripped by a language that has served him well and with which he remains quite infatuated. It’s by no means weak and its very brevity is a strength. Shortness does not equate directly with concentration but here it works.
The often glum, ruminative and mordantly ill-tempered Fifth Symphony dates from four years after its predecessor. It’s in four movements. The first and third are each about 13 minutes in duration and the total playing time comes to 38 minutes. Its progress is smooth but ideas flood by in mercurial slow-motion. The very brief second movement manages to meld fly-away gravity-defying progress with sinister incursions. The following Langsam was intended by Brun as an elegy for Hermann Suter (1870-1926). The finale is at first unpromisingly yet imposingly dense but it just escapes the oleaginous swamps for the last pages which are hugely headlong and explosive.
CD 6 places together two products of Brun’s 1930s. The Sixth Symphony declares allegiance in its first and third movements to a long interweaving cantabile. This aspect is lightly spiced with the acrid song-like lines of Franz Schmidt. The second movement finds a vertebrate spirit with a barking and combatively angular conflict which returns in the finale. However, Brun allows this to fall away and homes in on cantabile yet with an elegiac warp to its singing weft as the finale ultimately resolves into a not unmixed sense of triumph battered out by the brass.
As I wrote when reporting on the original disc, the 1939 Seventh Symphony is extremely and instantly impressive. Here we encounter a yearning melodic gift which echoes Othmar Schoeck (a composer venerated by Brun and three of whose Lieder he orchestrated), the acrid poignancy of Schmidt, a tinge of Elgarian melancholia and a lushness I now associate with Marx’s glorious Herbstsymphonie. This work pulls no emotional punches and there is winged fantasy at the beginning of the second movement and whiplash kinetic determination in the extended finale. This is intensely fine - very touching, roundedly lyrical, affectionate and affecting. It remains a potential delight to be discovered. Superb.
Brun’s Eighth Symphony (of which there are two recordings in this box) was written in the midst of the Second World War. It reflects the composer’s loyalty to the four-movement format and at about 55 minutes is a confident statement. Like the second movement of the Third Symphony this second uses ‘an old Bernese folksong” though not in variation form. Its sometimes brusque Beethovenian outer movements can tend to be garrulous but the Notturno (III) is a treasure, starting as it does with a string outlined ostinato and an enchanting melody borne into flight by a woody bass-clarinet.
Three Schoeck Lieder, orchestrated by Brun, finish CD 7. The poems are typical Schoeck: downbeat, gloomy, melancholy and strikingly atmospheric with an occasional sinister shading, as in the Lenau setting. In his resourceful use of the orchestral palette Brun faithfully serves and even accentuates this mood. The soprano Bernadett Fodor is commandingly forthright and darkens and lightens her voice complicit in the mood of a sustained sunset-glow.
Brun breaks with his own traditions for his Ninth Symphony (1949-50) and casts it in five movements. It’s the only break; after all, lyricism emerges as the order of the day. The second meditative movement (Serenade) with Mahlerian woodland moments reminds you of the Notturno of Brun’s Eighth Symphony. The Third movement Liebesrauf is relaxed, warm and unhurried. The finale is longer than any combined pair of the other four movements. The woodland idylls and sunray-lit glades are again active as they are at the symphonies very end. The orchestration is light as down and birdsong. Idiomatic and often touching playing from the Moscow Symphony is once again to be taken for granted. The same applies throughout this set.
CD 8 ends with Aus dem Buch Hiob (From The Book of Job), a tone poem from the years between Brun’s First and Second symphonies. It’s a skilled piece in motion between Brahmsian tranquillity, perhaps a surrender to Fate, and the working out of Destiny in troubled stormy waters. Skilled it may be but, attractive though it is, is more of an instinctive rhapsody than a gripping narrative despite the echoes of Brahms’ First Symphony in the last few minutes. The presence of a harp is notable though not extensive.
Brun’s Tenth and last Symphony shares CD 5 with the awkward ‘cuss’ that is the Fifth, written a quarter century earlier. Its four movements and thirty minutes date from 1953. This is a score that is light on its feet and which looks back to the more overtly Brahmsian experience of the Second Symphony (1911). It has its big moments and ends catchily and sun-warmed. It’s neither sinister nor tortured nor grouchy. This is music that leans on the spirit of the serenade rather than on tragic heights or anguished depths. In Beethovenian parallels this is the Eighth Symphony not the Fifth.
CD 9, with the Bratislava Orchestra, ingathers Brun’s works for piano and orchestra. In 1906 Brun had been soloist in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and the Second Concerto was also one of his favourites. It’s the shade of the Second that both ambles smilingly and cuts decisively through Brun’s 1946 Piano Concerto. It is played here with evident engagement by Tomás Nemec. An ambitious 38-minute piece, it is in three movements with some remarkably chamber-like episodes as well as an affirmatively spirited finale.
The compact (20 minutes) Variations on an Original Theme was a 1944 Sacher commission. There’s a track allocated to each of the Theme and Eight Variations. From only two years earlier that the Concerto, this is, across its many short sections, tender and gentle and gambols and skips in its often delicate and sometimes Bachian interplay between soloist and strings. The invention here feels as if Brun was going out of his way to re-forge and freshen his idiom.
From ten years after the Variations comes the thirteen-minute Divertimento for piano and strings. The creative heat here glows rather than flames, just as you would expect from a Divertimento.
The penultimate disc in the set includes the three-movement Cello Concerto written, against the grain of the times, one year after the Piano Concerto. This concerto philosophically apportions the songful and the soulful between orchestra and solo. Brun favours lyrical rhapsody but with a dash of angst-like drama in the finale. The soloist, Claudius Herrmann, seems totally absorbed with the score and its ‘voice’.
There's exuberance in Brun's setting for choir, organ and orchestra in Goethe's Verheissung ("Promise") as well as gentler qualities. It's very impressive and here the composer’s language is reminiscent of Delius in A Mass of Life. A stirring and concentrated work, it says much in less than ten minutes, ending in ecstatic triumph. The words are by Goethe and his Grenzen der Menschheit comes next. This short piece, written seventeen years after Verheissung, is stirring, with a sense of colossal German magnificence about it but without ‘letting fly’ in quite the way we experience with Verheissung. After these two choral pieces come five of Brun’sLiederfrom 1915-16. These are sung by the admirably steady and far from impassive Bernadett Fodor. Adriano has taken the original piano part and redistributed it for string sextet. Lebensgenuss has operatic reach while the slightly more expressionistic accents of Die Entschlafenen are more emotionally disengaged. Abendständchen is in the substance of a serenade but steers clear of unremitting charm with autumnal tints. The final two songs are cool, thoughtful and, in the case of Es wehet kühl und leise, elusive.
The last and tightly packed disc in the box presents two historic mono recordings nicely dusted off and smartened. The Eighth Symphony, conducted by the composer and heard in clean sound, has slightly more ‘bite’ as a performance in the first movement than the new recording on CD 7 but honours are divided. The Notturno (III) is more magical in the hands of Adriano and his Bratislava players and Brun’s finale heard in 1946 seems less driven. The sound is good. As for the Variations these are delicate but insubstantial fare: a curiosity of a piece that occasionally reminded me of Bax’s Cohen-Sargent Maytime in Sussex.
When first issued, CD 11 (then GHCD2351) had a bonus track in which could be heard Variation 8 before restorative sound processing. It does not appear here and its absence from an already quite lengthy disc is not a problem.
I rather wish though that we could hear the other Brun broadcasts (Swiss Radio)/recordings mentioned by Peter Palmer in his liner-note: the Seventh Symphony played by the Basel Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean-Marie Auberson and the Second played by AML Luzerner Sinfonieorchester directed by Olaf Henzold. Are there other recordings of the symphonies out there? It’s usually helpful to hear other perspectives especially from a composer as intriguing as Brun.
The Moscow Symphony Orchestra play an overwhelming majority role in this set as does inspirational conductor Adriano. They (and the Bratislava ensemble) emerge well from the experience and have already shown from their work in recording Jaques-Dalcroze, Schulz-Beuthen, Pierre Maurice, Pilati, Suter, Juon, Malipiero (famously with Antonio de Almeida), Janis Ivanovs, Havergal Brian and much film music that they are adept at turning their re-creative energies to causes presumed lost but not beyond their or Adriano’s redemptive powers.
The Brilliant booklet, which runs to 16 pages, has an illuminating contribution from Peter Palmer (1945-2014). Mr Palmer’s piece is an extended and edited version of his article from ‘Tempo’ in 1996. It is in both English and German. Adriano also has the valuable aesthetic and practical insights you would expect from a music director who, alone in his field, has championed Brun from the outset and over ten or more CDs. These can be found in his informative and reflective article which is only available as a pdf and you can see it here. The words for the songs and choral items on CDs 7 and 10 are set out in the pdf in the sung German and in English translation.
Over the years Guild has done much for Brun and Sterling has presented similar work for that other Swiss composer Hans Huber. There are other Swiss composers. Schoeck stands tall in their crowded company and has been celebrated by many labels, notable among them being MGB, Jecklin, CPO and Claves.
Perhaps one day Adriano’s work for Respighi and European film music will be similarly treated. I rather hope so. For now though, here, as BBC Radio 3 would have it, is a “complete immersion” in the strange and often invigorating waters.
Contents List and links to original reviews CD 1 [47:15]
Symphony No. 1 in B Minor (1901) [35:02] Ouvertüre zu einer Jubiläumsfeier (1950) [11:49] CD 2 [58:04]
Symphony No. 2 in B-Flat Major (1911) [37:33] Symphonic Prologue (1944) [20:38] CD 3 [60:55]
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1919) [60:55] CD 4 [67:09]
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor (1925) [57:01] Rhapsodie for Orchestra (1957) [10:08] CD 5 [68:30]
Symphony No. 5 in E-Flat Major (1929) [38:03]
Symphony No. 10 in B-Flat Major (1953) [30:27] CD 6 [74:32]
Symphony No. 6 in C Major (1933) [33:51]
Symphony No. 7 D Major (1937) [40:41] CD 7 [72:46]
Symphony No. 8 in A Major (1942) [53:54]
Drei Schoeck Lieder (1914 orch. Brun 1916): I. Auf meines Kindes Tod; II. Die drei Zigeuner; III. Jugendgedenken [11:36] CD 8 [61:17]
Symphony No. 9 in F Major (1953) [43:22] Aus dem Buch Hiob - tone poem (1906) [19:06] CD 9 [72:46]
Piano Concerto in A Major (1946) [38:04]
Variations for String Orchestra and piano (1944) [21:13]
Divertimento for Piano and strings (1954) [13:17] CD 10 [54:23]
Cello Concerto in D Minor (1947) [28:04]
Verheissung (1915) [9:26]
Grenzen der Menschheit (1932) [6:10]
Lieder für eine Altstimme & Klavier (1913-16): I. Lebensgenuss; II. Die Entschlafenen 85 Lieder für eine Altstimme & Klavier: III. Abendständchen; IV. Es wehet kühl und leise; V. Der Wunsch [10:26] CD 11 [77:23] Historical recordings (1946)
Symphony No. 8 in A Major (1942) [55:01].
Studio-Orchester Beromünster/Brun. rec. 1946
Variations for String Orchestra and Piano on an original Theme (1944) [23:02]
Adrian Aeschbacher (piano); Collegium Musicum Zürich/Paul Sacher (1906–1999)
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