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”.
Bruch (1838-1920): Scottish Fantasy Op. 46.
Clara-Jumi Kang (vln), Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Shi-Yeon Sung.
(Duration: 39:27; Video: 1080p HD)
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 (1809-1847):
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”).
Concierto de la Orquesta Joven de la OSG, dir. Roberto González Monjas.
(Duration: 41:33; Video: 1080p HD)
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
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.