Concert Notes

Sarah Chang Plays Bruch

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26
Max Bruch                                  
b. Cologne, Germany / January 6, 1838;
d. Berlin, Germany / October 2, 1920

Bruch never abandoned (or significantly advanced upon) the style he adopted in his youth: the warm, expressive Romantic German school of Mendelssohn and Schumann.

Although this concerto – his most enduringly popular composition – sounds smooth and effortless, it followed a difficult course to its final form. It won a favourable reception at its first public performance on April 24, 1866, in Coblenz, Germany, but it still left Bruch unsatisfied. Seeking advice on how to improve it, he consulted with the widely-respected Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim. Joachim gave him a long, detailed evaluation. Relieved by this expert counsel, Bruch dedicated the concerto to Joachim. He took up some of Joachim’s suggested changes, to which he added second thoughts of his own. The début of the revised edition, in Bremen, Germany, on January 7, 1868, drew a warm response from audience and composer alike.

Bruch entitled the concerto’s opening section prelude, implying that it serves primarily as an introduction to the more important second movement, the adagio. The prelude opens in an air of quiet, brooding melancholy before breaking out into a full-blown and impassioned allegro. It builds up to two major climaxes before dying away in emotional exhaustion. Bruch segues without pause into the heartfelt central adagio. This begins in a prayer-like atmosphere, then gradually gains both in activity and expressiveness. It features some of the most beautiful writing in the entire literature for violin.

Bruch concludes the concerto with a propulsive, gypsy-flavoured finale. It anticipates the last movement of the concerto that Johannes Brahms wrote 10 years later, a work also dedicated to, and premièred by, Joseph Joachim. It’s definitely a dance, but in keeping with the concerto’s overall character, it’s still a rather serious one. The second theme has a noble contour, more elevated than heroic.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26
1. Prelude: Allegro moderato...
2. Adagio
3. Finale: Allegro energico

Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D.944 “The Great”
Franz Schubert
b. Vienna, Austria / January 31, 1797;
d. Vienna / November 19, 1828

Schubert was among the first of countless nineteenth-century composers to labour under the shadow of Beethoven – an especially intimidating situation in the realm of the symphony. Undaunted by Beethoven’s nine superlative examples, he gradually gained the experience necessary to challenge the master on his own turf. In this, his final symphony, he proved himself a worthy successor.

Gradually rebuilding his self-confidence after the dark and troubled “Unfinished” Symphony in B Minor (1822), Schubert determined to compose what he considered a “grand” symphony. By giving it a broader scale than his previous symphonies, and providing materials of sufficient substance to justify its dimensions, he believed it could rival the masterworks of Beethoven (whose Ninth had premièred the year before), while still bearing the imprint of his own personality. It is most likely that he sketched it – this symphony in C Major – during the summer of 1825, then developed and revised it over the remaining three years of his life.

Alas, when he offered it to the Vienna Philharmonic Society, the players complained so bitterly about its length and difficulty that it never progressed beyond rehearsal. After his death, the manuscript passed into the possession of his brother Ferdinand. In 1835, Ferdinand placed an advertisement in the prominent musical journal New Musical Times, revealing the existence of the symphony and several additional Schubert manuscripts. The journal’s editor, Robert Schumann, came to see about them, and on New Year’s Day 1836, Ferdinand revealed all the treasure to his distinguished guest.

“The riches that lay here piled up made me tremble with pleasure. Where to begin, where to stop?” Schumann wrote. The greatest prize of all was the C Major Symphony. “Who knows how long it would have lain neglected there in dust and darkness, had I not immediately arranged to send it to the management of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, or rather to the conducting artist himself.”

The “conducting artist” was his friend and fellow composer, Felix Mendelssohn. He conducted the symphony’s first performance, in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schumann: “The symphony reached Leipzig, where it was performed, its greatness recognized, performed again and received with delighted and almost universal admiration.” “Almost,” indeed. Achieving genuine recognition for the symphony, in any locale, was not achieved easily. It was only toward the close of the century that it firmly established itself as a repertoire staple throughout Europe.

He cast each of its four movements on a vast scale. The first opens with a majestic introduction, and proceeds with a bold and vigorous allegro. The theme of the prelude returns to end this section affirmatively. The strolling tempo and slightly melancholy character of the second movement is set right from the beginning. After a central climax which verges on emotional disaster, the mood gradually relaxes back to its opening sense of gentility.

The following scherzo is not at all a simple joke or dance, but an immense outburst of Olympian energy. In the central trio section, the winds present a long, eloquent theme of surpassing charm and richness. A commanding call to attention heralds the confident finale. In it Schubert builds an exhilarating sense of joyful forward momentum, propelled by an insistent, galloping string rhythm (the primary source of those early players’ discomfort and derision), and bolstered by the ever-more-forceful underpinning of trombones.

Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “The Great”
1. Andante – Allegro, ma non troppo
2. Andante con moto
3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
4. Allegro vivace


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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