Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch
Max Bruch’s gift for the ardently voiced melody and his feeling for the violin have made him perhaps the least familiar name among composers of the most cherished standard-rep concertos. But among audiences and players alike, his Violin Concerto No. 1 is one of the most successful works in the violin repertory. Why then did Bruch, who wrote more than 200 well- crafted pieces in the German Romantic style, snarl irritably at the success of this one?
You'll also meet the Guest Artist, Dan Zhu
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Program Note Annotator
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
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2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo violin
Performance time: 24 minutes
Performed by Dan Zhu – Violin
Max Bruch’s gift for the ardently voiced melody and his feeling for the violin have made him perhaps the least familiar name among composers of the most cherished standard-rep concertos.
But among audiences and players alike, his Violin Concerto No. 1 is one of the most successful works in the violin repertory. Why then did Bruch, who wrote more than 200 well- crafted pieces in the German Romantic style, snarl irritably at the success of this one?
The fact is, we can hardly blame him. Though he was esteemed in his own time and earned the lasting gratitude of every violin enthusiast, he never escaped the shadow of this concerto. It has eclipsed all his other compositions and even seemed to hinder his career and financial interests.
Max Bruch, 1938-1920
Bruch’s violin music admirably embodies every trait desired in the Romantic violin repertory: singing lines, passionate phrasing, extreme dynamics, over-arching drama, double and triple stops. If you’ve only heard Bruch on recording, watch the soloist dig into the strings: this is music to play while tossing your hair. And while this composition is by far his most popular, it’s probably unfair to characterize him as a one-hit wonder; after all, he wrote two other fine violin concertos and the beloved Scottish Fantasy.
Born in 1838, Bruch completed the Concerto No. 1 in 1866 and conducted the premiere in that year, revising it with the assistance of the great violinist Joseph Joachim.
The revised version, which is the performing edition we know today, was first performed in January 1868 — beginning the concerto’s oddly jinxed history. Though he kept a copy of the score for himself, Bruch sold the original score and its rights to his publisher, and in the economic turmoil surrounding World War I, it passed in and out of the hands of various buyers, some of whom reneged on payment, until its final sale to the collection of Pierpont Morgan Library.
The one element all these transfers had in common was that they did not benefit Bruch in any way.
Even with performances of his first concerto seemingly in every concert hall, Bruch suffered economic privation throughout his life.
Small wonder he was embittered by this concerto’s success. “Nothing compares with the laziness, stupidity and dullness of many German violinists,” he wrote to his publisher. “Every fortnight another one comes to me wanting to play the First Concerto; I have now become rude, and tell them: ‘I cannot listen to this concerto any more—did I perhaps write just one? Go away, and play my other concertos, which are just as good, if not better.’”
Happily, modern audiences can listen to it again and again, enjoying its emotional and melodic richness.
What to Listen For
The concerto opens with a prelude marked allegro moderato in a march rhythm that builds a feeling of suspenseful anticipation. Then a melody springs up in the flutes, gradually baiting the entry of the violin soloist. This occurs with a brief cadenza whose repeat leads into the main body of the movement—strongly melodic, deliberate and brooding. The movement forms a perfect arc, ending as it began, with two brief cadenzas.
The Second Movement
The second movement, a slow adagio, exerts a powerful emotional pull through long, expressive, ardently voiced melodic lines for the violin soloist. Shifting voices in the orchestra provide a foil for the solo violin’s flowing melody. This passionate movement, soulful and singing, is prime Bruch, and if you manage to keep your eyes open while listening to it, you might notice that the soloist’s eyes are often closed.
The concerto’s finale, marked allegro energico, opens to reveal a quiet melody that simmers with intensity until it bursts into a rapid allegro theme peppered with double-stops. This gives way to a slower, more lyrical third theme that in turn prepares the way for the reprise of the allegro theme. The movement culminates with an orchestra-wide accelerando, concluding the concerto with two emphatic chords.
Meet The Guest Artist
DAN ZHU, Violin
Dan Zhu is widely recognized as one of the finest Chinese musicians on the international stage today, praised as “an artist of affecting humility and beautiful tone production” by The Strad magazine, performing internationally in North America, Europe and Asia. His recent performance with the Boston Symphony at the Tanglewood Festival has been heralded by the critics as “truly brilliant, compelling and polished.”
He has appeared with many orchestras under the direction of Maestros Christoph Eschenbach, Zubin Mehta, Philippe Entremont, Jacek Kaspszyk, Gianandrea Noseda, Krzysztof Penderecki, Carl St.Clair, Muhai Tang, Long Yu and Lü Jia, among many others, and has been invited to perform and give master classes at renowned festivals, such as Salzburg, Tanglewood, Kuhmo, Marlboro, Menton, Schleswig-Holstein, Prades-Casals, Ravinia and Spoleto.
Dan Zhu’s latest season highlights include concerto appearances with Zubin Mehta and the Orchestra Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Camerata Salzburg at the Salzburg Festival; the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and on tour; the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra in Germany; and Lincoln Center series in New York. His appearances at the San Siro Stadium during the 2015 Milan Expo and “World Chinese New Year’s Gala 2015” were broadcast worldwide by international media.
He performed the China premiere of Bright Sheng’s Violin Concerto “Let Fly” for the opening concert of the 2014 Beijing International Modern Music Festival; was soloist with the symphony orchestras of Boston, Belgrade, Munich, Paris, Vancouver and more; gave duo recitals with Christoph Eschenbach (Mozart and Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Kennedy Center and at National Center for Performing Arts of Beijing), also with Peter Frankl in the U.S., with Philippe Entremont and Kun Woo Paik in France and with Michel Dalberto in St. Petersburg, Russia; and performed in a chamber series with Lang Lang in Los Angeles.
He was artist in residence at the Mehli Mehta Foundation in Mumbai and at the “Intimacy of Creativity” in Hong Kong. His duo recital with Tzimon Barto in Hamburg was highly acclaimed by Die Welt as “distinctive dramaturgy of contrasts, crystalline tones with intensity and sensitivity.”
A native of Beijing, Zhu made his first public appearance at the age of 9, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the China Youth Chamber Orchestra.
At age 12 he entered the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where he studied with Xiao-zhi Huang. Four years later he was awarded the Alexis Gregory Scholarship to study with Lucie Robert at Mannes College of Music in New York. He made his Carnegie Hall debut with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto at the age of 18, and won several prestigious international competitions, including Brussels’ Queen Elisabeth, Montréal, Sendai and the China International.
His mentors have included Ivry Gitlis, Gerard Poulet and Aaron Rosand.
Zhu has worked with many of the leading composers of our time in performances andrecordings, including George Benjamin, Gyorgy Kurtag, Krzysztof Penderecki, the late Gian-Carlo Menotti, Wolfgang Rihm and Xiaogang Ye. His interest in other creative fields has led his music to link several collaborations with the environmental organization Antarctica Forum and architect group Arte-Charpentier.
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Image by National Gallery of Art