Summary for the Busy Executive: Sound and fury, but mainly sound.
Although known today mainly for his orchestral and concerted pieces, Bruch loved writing large-scale choral music, preferably to sacred texts. I've reviewed before his Gruss an die heilige Nacht and Die Flucht der heiligen Familie, both of which have a kind of Brahmsian, Alto Rhapsody, quality about them. Both run in one continuous movement, relatively short, and both emphasize a song-like structure. Das Lied von der Glocke (Song of the Bell) goes on much longer and in lots of separate numbers.
Bruch set a major poem by Schiller, perhaps the poet's most popular during the Nineteenth Century. Schiller foreshadows Poe's hilarious poem The Bells, in that the bell sings of life and the universe. It always struck me as a better poem in German than in any English translation I've seen (the sheer sound of Schiller – say that fast five times – is stunning), and it's certainly better than Poe, a poet who, according to Auden, were he any better, would be less interesting. Nevertheless, like most of Schiller's long, non-dramatic work, it contains a fair amount of balloon-gas – lofty euphemisms that pop like soap-bubbles of nonsense when you poke them. I should add, however, that the translation by Edward "It was a dark and stormy night" Bulwer Lytton, provided in the liner notes, doesn't help much with the meaning.
The poem became a propaganda puff for German nationalism, at a considerable high after the Franco-Prussian War, when Bruch produced it. Incidentally, Brahms wrote his Triumphlied at around the same time, in the same climate, and out of many of the same motives. However, where the Triumphlied is a masterpiece, if not all that well known, the Bruch is unknown for understandable reasons.
Much of it strikes me as a musical equivalent of Schiller, in that it makes a lovely sound without making a lot of musical sense. In that regard, Rachmaninoff's The Bells, based on Poe, has much more musical moxie. Nevertheless, Bruch demonstrates a superb handling of large forces. His use of soloists, for example, approaches the dramatic, in that he assigns each voice music of a specific character – kind of a meta-Meistersinger. The bass portrays the wisdom of the master metalworker (Hans Sachs), the tenor gets to be heroic (Walther), and the women get the tender sentiments (Elizabeth). But, unlike Wagner, there's no psychological depth to any of it. A lot of the music just goes by. There's a virtuoso chorus on fire sweeping through a town, which has a tub-thumping effectiveness, but almost no sticking power.
The cantata comes to life only toward the end, when Schiller's ode to Order releases a flood of nationalist sentiment about the fatherland. This seems the obvious source of Bruch's inspiration. You can practically hear composer shifting gears, raising his game, the difference coming that suddenly and that noticeably. Lines all at once have musical point, structures become more complex, counterpoint intensifies. Up to now, the rest has been a kind of shuffling in the parlor as we wait for the grand moment to arrive. I doubt Schiller would have sanctioned the German imperialism of the second half of the Nineteenth Century, since he vilifies Napoleonic imperialism in the same poem, but that's the problem with putting so much weight on mere terms like Vaterland and concord. Meanings shift to the point where a word describes its opposite, rather like the history of the words democracy and freedom today. At any rate, from there on out, Bruch's Lied soars high to the end. I found it a little odd that none of the music, as far as I could hear, used bells or even imitated them. Bruch tends to emphasize brass when the poem talks about bell sounds. Obviously, Bruch, like Schiller, isn't really talking about a bell.
The performance rises no higher than the level of OK. The chorus is particularly sloppy, especially in its diction and at cutoffs. Usually, it's no more than a nice sound, rather than a conveyor of poetic sense. The soloists, without possessing super-Technicolor voices, nevertheless sing very well indeed, and for me provided the highlight of the work. Jac van Steen's direction would have persuaded more, had it been crisper. As it stands, it reminds me of a carved bar of soap which has been used a bit. The outlines have blurred; the shape has sagged. The engineering, however, is fine. Balances lean not to the true-to-life, but to reasonable clarity. The lack of distinctive contour comes entirely from the performers.
Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz