By Inge Kjemtrup
Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 always lands in the top ten of any list of the most popular and frequently performed classical pieces. That’s why it’s a cornerstone of the repertory for concert violinists such as Joshua Bell. He plays it regularly in concert and has recorded it more than once—in fact, it features on Bell’s very first recording with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, released 30 years ago. By contrast, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy in E-flat major, Op. 46, doesn’t get nearly as much attention, despite its many virtuoso and musical charms. Consider that it’s only now, some three decades after that intial release, that Bell has recorded the Fantasy, taking on the duel role of soloist and conductor with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.
“It’s one of those pieces I grew up listening to and I always loved it, but I never found the chance to play it until recently,” Bell explains. “I think it’s one of the most gorgeous pieces.” The recording that the young Bell favored was made by Jascha Heifetz in 1947. “It was a special piece for Heifetz. I think he even chose to play it in his final concert in Paris.”
Although I am speaking to Bell on the phone, his passion for the violin, seasoned with a mischievous sense of humor, comes through clearly, for example when he reminisces about hearing the Fantasy played by fellow students at the Meadowmount School of Music. “They used to call the piece ‘Scratching Frantically’! As with so many pieces—the Bruch concerto or even the Mendelssohn concerto—it suffers from being thought of as a student piece.
“The Scottish Fantasy can sound like ‘Scratching Frantically’ if you don’t play it well. There are a lot of three- or four-note chords played in repetition and they can sound awful. But if it’s played well, it actually is one of the most beautiful pieces I know for the instrument, and also beautifully orchestrated. I think it’s a genius piece and underrated in the repertoire.”
What led the German-born Bruch (1838–1920) to compose a piece about faraway Scotland, a place he had not then visited? With its rugged landscape, thorny history, and distinctive folk music, Scotland had irresistible appeal to many Romantic composers, not least Mendelssohn, who had visited the land of haggis and kilts before he composed his “Hebrides” Overture and Symphony No. 3 “Scottish.”
While writing the Fantasy in Berlin in 1879–80, Bruch’s likely source was a Scottish folksong collection, The Scots Musical Museum, printed in 1780. Within its pages are the folk songs that appear in the Fantasy, including the melody of ‘Scots Wha Hae’, to which Robert Burns later added vigorously nationalist lyrics. You can hear that melody in the fourth movement, while “Through the Wood Laddie” is in the first, “The Dusty Miller” in the second, and “I’m Doun for Lack O’Johnnie” is in the third. You’ll also hear plenty of iterations of the “Scottish snap”—a short, accented note followed by a longer note—and many passages that feature the harp, an instrument linked in the Romantic mind to ancient ballads. (Bruch’s original title for the concerto was Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies.)
In a press release for Bell’s new recording, much is made of the fact that his father was of Scottish descent. Bell sounds dubious about the idea that this gives him inside knowledge of the Fantasy. “I wouldn’t say my Scottish heritage gives me any special right to play it,” he says. “I do love the soulfulness of the tunes and I’ve always gravitated toward the Mendelssohn ‘Scottish’ Symphony, which I’ve had the great privilege to direct with the Academy many times. I love the Third Symphony, it’s my favorite, but I don’t know if that’s also because it’s my Scottish ancestry!”
Bell reminds me that the Fantasy wasn’t the only work by Bruch to draw on another culture for inspiration. “He also wrote Kol Nidrei, which is very Jewish. He wasn’t Jewish, so he clearly had a knack for capturing the spirit of different ethnic flavors.” Bruch composed Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra, Op. 47, in 1880, by which point he was the director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society. It was with that orchestra and the violinist Joseph Joachim that the Scottish Fantasy had its premiere on February 22, 1881. Although Joachim was Brahms’ violinist of choice, his performance of the Fantasy displeased Bruch, who claimed Joachim had “ruined” the piece. A surprising statement, considering that Bruch later dedicated the Third Violin Concerto to Joachim, but then the composer may have had a different kind of violinist in mind: the Fantasy’s dedicatee was the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who performed it two years later.
For several early performances, the work’s title included the word “concerto” and I ask Bell why he thinks that was dropped in the end. He cites the fact that the Fantasy has four movements rather than the more conventional three. “It’s really like four vignettes,” Bell says. “He was unsure whether he should call it a concerto because the first movement doesn’t have a traditional structure. In a way it’s like the prelude to the slow movement. And I believe he asked Joachim whether it warranted being called a concerto and the answer was, ‘This is definitely close enough to be called a concerto.’” Plus, we agree there’s a certain curb appeal in the name. “I like the idea of Scottish Fantasy. It’s a much more glamorous title.”
Bell’s first recording of the Scottish Fantasy is coupled on the new disc with the First Concerto, a work that, as mentioned, he knows extremely well. “You know, after playing something that many times over the years it organically changes. You discover things along the way; you discover new ways to tell the story, in a more natural way. I have more insights into many things, whether rhythmic or harmonic. I feel I understand the piece so much better than when I was 19. I feel I understand the orchestral part in a much deeper way than I did when I was younger. Part of that is because I have to direct things as well.”
It turns out that while soloing with every major orchestra on the planet, Bell was taking mental notes. “When you work with conductors, and many of them great conductors, you learn something from every one of them—sometimes what to do, sometimes what not to do. Whenever you work with a conductor, you have to choose your battles. You can’t take over your rehearsal and say you want this and this. You have to be diplomatic and try to get on. When I’m directing it myself, I can always delve into every little detail—my laundry list of things I’ve always wished I’d heard from the orchestra. It’s a lot of fun to do it that way, and with the Academy, all the ingredients were there.”
“When you work with conductors, and many of them great conductors, you learn something from every one of them—sometimes what to do, sometimes what not to do.”
So about that first recording session: Bell was a freshly minted soloist in his late teens when he flew to London to record Bruch’s First Concerto and Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The experience was memorable, though not for the best reasons, as he explains: “I’d never made a record before, and I just signed with Decca Records. Basically my schedule in London that week was that I had three days to record my first solo album [Presenting Joshua Bell]. To this day I’m rather proud of that album. It had some quirky unusual pieces and it also represents the era when I was still studying with my teacher, Josef Gingold. He placed great value on that old virtuoso repertoire, which I really appreciated.
“What they did that week [was] put me through three days of recording that album and straight the next day into a recording studio with the Academy and Neville Marriner, without any rehearsal. Just basically turn on the light and start playing the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos. Knowing what I know today about the process, I would have never agreed to that kind of schedule, but at the time I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll do whatever you tell me.’ As much as I admire Neville Marriner, and the orchestra was amazing as always, it wasn’t the ideal circumstances to really make it the way I would have liked.”
Thirty years later, he is the artistic director of the Academy, and he speaks warmly about their “wonderful” relationship. “The Academy is my musical family right now,” he says. “I see the orchestra coming out after concerts with smiles on their faces, like on a high after a concert. It never feels like they’re just phoning it in or doing their job. So refreshing to have that attitude from an orchestra. You don’t always get that, sadly.”
In his conducting role, he has led the Academy through the first eight Beethoven symphonies. Now that Bell has signed on for another three years as artistic director, there’s talk that the Ninth beckons. “I think it’s really important for any musician to always find new territory, to always feel you’re a student, because otherwise you get stagnant and everything suffers. I think you always need to be exploring and I definitely feel like I have territory to explore with [the Academy].”
Meanwhile, there is the new album. I’m sure I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, journalist to ask about that Scottish connection. “My father was proud of his Scottish heritage,” says Bell. “He used to talk about his grandfather being part of the Black Watch battalion of Scotland. He was sort of a Scot-ophile, my father. We even bought a house on a street called Inverness Farm Road.” To borrow again from Robert Burns, Bell’s heart may not be in the Highlands, but a little bit of Scotland the brave is definitely inside of Joshua Bell.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.