I played Max Bruch’s first violin concerto when I was fourteen. Not the solo violin part you understand, because at the time I couldn’t play the violin. I still can’t play the violin and to be honest I have never tried. No, in those days I was a spotty teenage cellist and a rather inexperienced one at that, sitting at the back of the cello section of our national youth orchestra. But the concerto had a lasting impression and as soon I had saved up enough pocket money I bought the record, along with LPs of Bruch’s two other violin concerti and a recording of his Scottish Fantasy. In his day Bruch was much admired for his choral music but he also wrote three symphonies, four operas, several concertos and a fair amount of chamber music.
The Scottish Fantasy has always remained a popular concert piece perhaps because it contains some genuine and well-known Scottish folk songs. And in case you’re wondering, the curious expression “Scotch mist” has several different meanings. In its literal sense it means the thick, cold and penetrating mist which verges on rain and all too common in the northern parts of Britain. It’s also used as an idiomatic expression for something that is hard to find or possibly doesn’t even exist. It can also apply to a flowering plant known to botanists as Galium sylvaticum and most important – as far as I’m concerned – it’s the name of a splendid drink made with Scotch whisky, ice and a dash of lemon. It makes a pleasing late-night drink before hitting the hay. Now then, where was I? (Search me – Ed.)
Ah yes, I remember. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy was completed in 1880, despite the fact that he didn’t actually visit Scotland until se veral years later. It’s a violin concerto in all but name, though I suppose it’s more prosaically described as “a four-movement fantasy based on Scottish folk melodies”.
After the slow and rather ominous introduction, the mood gradually becomes lighter and more melodious. The work is built around a handful of Scottish folk tunes. The first you’ll hear is Through the Wood Laddie which also shows up later in the work along with the songs The Dusty Miller and I’m a’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie. The unmistakable sound of Scots bagpipes is suggested in the second movement (10:05) and you might even recognise some of the melodies, especially a tune called Hey Tuttie Tatie that kicks off the sizzling last movement (23:37). Surprisingly, this tune dates back to the 14th century. The Fantasy would make a splendid introduction to the music of Max Bruch who today is really not given the attention he deserves.
These fine South Korean musicians give a compelling performance and violinist Clara-Jumi Kang is brilliantly competent. A child prodigy, she started violin lessons at the age of three and won a full scholarship at the age of seven to study at the prestigious Julliard School. Incidentally, back in 1881 the soloist at the work’s premiere was the distinguished violinist Joseph Joachim but the composer accused him of “ruining” the performance. History does not record what acerbic comments might have been exchanged.
Felix Mendelssohn went to Scotland on an extensive walking tour in 1829. It must have had quite an impression him because it also inspired The Hebrides concert overture. After this was completed he started sketches for the symphony, although progress was evidently difficult, so much so that he abandoned the work for ten years and didn’t get it finished until 1842. As a result, although it was the composer’s fifth and final symphony, it was the third to be published and has subsequently been known as Symphony No. 3.
It has an imposing first movement and unusually the second movement (at 15:49) is a fast one with a lovely, sunny theme which may strike you as familiar. This movement is meticulously played with splendid precision and articulation especially by the brass. The last movement draws ideas from Scottish dance music although unlike Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, no genuine Scottish folk songs have ever been identified.
The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Galicia is in splendid form. In case you’d forgotten (or possibly never knew) Galicia lies on the north-west Atlantic coast of Spain, directly north of Portugal. This performance is somewhat unusual for a 19th century symphony in that it’s directed by the orchestra’s leader. But because the work requires a relatively small number of players, a conductor is not entirely necessary. Even so, it’s a bit disconcerting to see an empty space where the conductor usually stands.