Bruch, Max: Octet, Op. Posth.

In strictly numeric terms, Max Bruch can be regarded as a late-romantic composer.  He was born around the time of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, and he outlived both Mahler and Debussy.  But his style is much closer to that of the  Mendelssohn (born 29 years before), and Bruch remained solidly in that earlier style until his death in 1920.  He was never in any compositional sense a late-romantic composer, to the extent that might imply harmonic and structural boundary-pushing, or dark, windy atmosphere.  Max Bruch was an early romantic, who was rather late in being so.

What he did have to distinguish his fundamentally conservative style was a great gift for melody.  Bruch’s most famous work, the first violin concerto, presents the lyric possibilities of the violin as well as any piece ever has (which is saying a lot).  His melodic writing seems to have given his works for solo strings (particularly the Scottish Fantasy for violin and the Kol Nidrei for solo cello) considerable staying power.  This instinct for melody, a great quantity of which is poured into the concerto-like first violin part of the Octet, is perhaps the principal force driving his music.

The main elements of the Octet were probably taken from a string quintet which the composer had begun some time earlier, and reconfigured on the model of Mendelssohn’s Octet.  By the time of its publication, however, Bruch had replaced the second cello with a double bass, in the hope that an instrumentation which could be taken up by a string orchestra would sell more copies.  This was in 1920, the last year of his life, and it didn’t help.  That the Octet is a work basically in the style of Mendelssohn written at the beginning of the Weimar republic also probably didn’t help its popularity — but, in 2011, a late date of publication makes it no less rich a work to hear. It was a bit late in coming, true… but now it is here, and it sounds very fine indeed.

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