Masterclass: Joshua Bell on Bruch's Violin Concerto no.1, third movement
The American violinist discusses gypsy style, charisma, flair and contrast in the lively third movement of this much-loved work
Joseph Joachim, for whom this piece was written, once made the famous statement: ‘The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.’ Joachim’s placing of the Bruch in this highest tier of concertos is praise indeed, and certainly justified. The Bruch packs an amazing emotional punch, and its slow movement in particular is one of the most glorious pieces ever written for the violin.
The whole concerto is incredibly crafted and fits the hand so well that even players near the beginning of their advanced studies can get around it. Ironically, it suffers because of that: a lot of us remember it as one of the first pieces we ‘hacked away at’ when we were young. As we get older we tend to forget that it is one of the real gems of the repertoire.
Whatever you do, it will feel inauthentic if in your mind you don’t have the right character. When I hear musicians playing in a way that sounds cheap or schmaltzy, it makes me think they don’t take the piece seriously, or that they don’t believe in it. You’re exposing your soul when you play music and people will judge you by that, because the way you play reflects your choices and how you view the music.
There are so many three- and four-note successive chords in the Scottish Fantasy too that when I was a kid we called it the Scratch Frantically – even though I now see it as one of the most beautiful pieces ever written.
Everyone will have a different opinion of how and when their indulgences take place when they play music, and they will have to make those decisions for themselves. But the point is that you are making these decisions – you’re thinking about what to do, and why. Ask yourself: How do I want this character? How do I want this accent to go? Does it match the character of the piece? You should be asking yourself these sorts of questions constantly.