Over the last month I’ve spent some time reconsidering the music of Max Bruch. This began when idle curiosity led me to spend an afternoon reacquainting myself with his three symphonies. I think I must have last listened to these pieces over a decade ago, but they have always lurked on the edge of my musical radar screen: they are curiosities that fill in a certain time and place between works that are altogether more familiar, like the symphonies of Schumann and Brahms. The week after this symphonic re-acquaintance, I found myself having a spirited and entertaining conversation about Bruch with a new friend I made at a conducting seminar. Amusingly forthright in his low opinion of Bruch as a composer, over the next few days this developed into something of an ongoing joke between us, he the fierce critic of this dreadful composer, me the reluctant champion of a forgotten master.
I should confess that this is not a role that I felt particularly comfortable in; indeed my experience re-listening to the symphonies the previous week only confirmed my ambivalent feelings about Bruch. When I wrote earlier that I thought of the symphonies in terms of their historical curiosity, it’s reasonable to say that characterizes my feelings about their composer more generally. Bruch certainly should hit right in the sweet spot of my interests and yet, to be blunt, I find myself a lot more enamoured when I consider him and his music abstractly. I find the history of composer and compositions to be rather more appealing than the music itself. His works have wondrous moments of beauty, some sophisticated deployment of thematic material across movements, and an adroit handling of form and orchestration. And yet, more often than not, I find myself distracted by the idea that Bruch might be the musical equivalent of an ostrich, flapping its majestic wings yet never able to take flight.
There’s certainly the argument to be made that it’s not reasonable to judge this music in terms of the short acquaintance I made with it on a summer’s afternoon. The greater familiarity that comes from studying the score may well turn my ambivalence into admiration. I don’t deny that this could well be the case, but when I’m exploring new repertoire it’s also with an eye to how I might program it, and I think my initial reaction can be a good indicator of what I might expect from my hypothetical audience. After those pieces that you have to program there are the pieces you want to program. They need to be considered in the way they contribute to the make-up of the concert, the season, or the kind of musical ethos that you want your orchestra and audience to share. Moreover, they need to be considered in terms of the strength of the case that you the conductor can make for them as works that should – or indeed need - to be part of today's musical culture.
Despite my misgivings I have to concede that not only have I enjoyed what Bruch I’ve performed in the past, but that as I've extended my exploration to his other orchestral works, there were certainly less familiar works that I could see myself making the case for. After all, the characteristics of an ostrich surely extend beyond its deficiency in flight. When at his best it is clear enough to see why Bruch was so admired in his time. Perhaps with the right advocate and the right programming we’ll find that we needn’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to his less familiar works.