The American violinist discusses gypsy style, charisma, flair and contrast in the lively third movement of this much-loved work

Joshua Bell with ASMF by Erik Kabik4_28_12_joshua_bell_smith_center_kabik-785-27

Joshua Bell with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Photo ©Erik Kabik

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.

Consider character

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.

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The introduction

The ending of the second movement is an intimate and spiritual experience, and I love the way the third movement emerges ‘from the heavens’, continuing in the same key of E flat after only a short pause, with a pulsing viola line that brews the excitement leading up to the main theme. I ask the violas to play with clarity and dryness in pianissimo, with a slight emphasis on every sixth note to give a sense of tempo. The first violins’ entrance is marked piano but should be played with clear left-hand articulation, character and flair – as should the hushed but accented cello response – to give the listener a feeling of suppressed energy ready to burst, like a pot full of water that is just beginning to boil with a lid on top.

From bar 9 there is a crescendo and subito piano that many conductors ignore, but I love it: it’s like a miniature ‘psych out’ which only adds to the anticipation. The music then grows and finally moves to the dominant, with a crescendo into bar 19 that should make the soloist and audience feel they’re about to jump out of their skin. If this introduction is done properly, the solo entrance will be incredibly satisfying.

Rhythmic rigour

Play the extroverted solo violin entry with utter confidence. Don’t go too fast: the excitement is generated by rhythmic rigour, not speed. Listen to the winds’ second beats which provide the Hungarian dance feel; and make sure your quaver (e) up-beats come after the orchestral pizzicatos, to give the rhythm its snap. Really feel the rests: for instance, from bar 21, if you’re too eager the triplet will lose its poise, so try to delay and compress it slightly. The rhythm must also sit back for the triplets in bar 78 and the runs in bar 90, which are often rushed. I tend to think in terms of long musical lines, but each bar here is its own entity, as shown by the orchestra hairpins.

Henle Verlag Bruch violin concerto

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s July 2018 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition

Harmony, dynamics and direction

Bruch marks the soloist fortissimo until the tutti in bar 58. Take this with a pinch of salt: one should always pay attention to harmony changes and decide how they affect the mood.

In bar 27, for example, I use a faster, softer bow; coming down in dynamic allows a larger, more effective crescendo to the tutti. Series of sforzandos usually suggest a crescendo, with each one stronger than the last (Beethoven does this a lot) – as in bars 34–35. Direction is important! Music is almost always going to or coming from somewhere.

Again Bruch marks fortissimo from bars 40 to 58, but there is room for dynamic nuance: in bar 45 the harmony changes again and I use a lighter, more questioning character; I drop in bar 54 to allow for another exciting crescendo.

In bar 188 a surprise B–E sharp plunge by the soloist takes us down a new path. Make the orchestra aware that you want to bring this out; maybe even take time into bar 189, to clarify that this is a significant moment in the structure of the piece.

I can never stress it enough: use the underlying harmonies to inform your dynamics and phrasing decisions.

From bar 193 Bruch takes us through different keys in fortissimo, but again, every harmony can have a different colour: the F sharp major is strong, the B major sprightly, the E minor different again. Change bow speed and dynamic each time. We all have our own ideas as to what each harmony means. That’s fine, as long as it means something


Watch: Joshua Bell performs Bruch’s Violin Concerto no.1 [the video below will start at the third movement]

Full score

Many young players learn from the violin part alone. Even if they look at the piano reduction, they may miss instructions that only appear in the orchestra score. One must always consult the score and return to it in order to see what the composer had in mind. If you decide to overrule an instruction in the score – a dynamic or a metronome marking, for example, do it only after a healthy amount of consideration.

Bar-line bias

We tend to accent bar-lines out of habit. In bar 62, the peak of the orchestra phrase is after the bar-line, but so often it is played to the bar-line instead, which just isn’t as beautiful as soaring over the top. A simple gesture from the conductor can make a world of difference. So as not to emphasise the bar-line at bar 190 I sometimes use an up bow on the D, to avoid five accented, monotonous beats in a row. I think of the D as a question to end the previous phrase, answered by the chords that follow.

Finding the right tone

The melody from bar 104 is incredibly lush and operatic. It is a mistake to equate the accents with aggression – they can be played in many ways. If you use your bow and vibrato properly, they will sound powerful and expressive rather than angry.

Think like a chef: you don’t want your food to be bland or over-spiced. Here, vibrato and portamento are your spices. I love to use slides to emphasise the vocal elements of music, but you have to be careful: from bar 115 there is a leap down and another back up. I’ve heard this tune described as schmaltzy, but I think it is noble and passionate, not cheap! Sliding consecutively up and down sounds slurpy, so I don’t slide from the top A; but I play a portamento for the more expressive 7th going up to the G. Sometimes I slide into the sensuous, sexy sforzando C natural in bar 122 too.

Non-melody notes

So often in music, from Bach to Beethoven to Bruch, we have ‘improvisatory passages’ that play around a familiar theme. The interesting notes in these variations are not always the ones you expect. Often players feel obliged to play a musical form of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ – look for the melody hidden in the variation and bring it out, as if to show they know where it is. From the grazioso in bar 135, it’s important to hear the theme in the orchestra, but it’s more fun to hear the improvisation around it. Give the listener the benefit of the doubt: they know where the melody is, so bring out some of the other interesting things you find instead – dissonant notes, ‘blue’ notes, notes that go against the harmony.

Dialogue with the orchestra

Like all great composers, Bruch keeps us guessing and never uses the same formula twice. From bar 213 we have the second theme again, but this time only half is played by the orchestra, the rest by the soloist. It’s as if you’re so eager to play the melody that you take over halfway through and finish the orchestra’s sentence. It’s important to feel that dialogue. Instead of using the improvisational ornamentation he writes the first time around, Bruch then shares the second part of the theme between violin and orchestra. Enjoy this espressivo as you finally play the theme instead of just ornamenting around it.

Musical pace and structure

A movie director paces the emotions in a film so that the climaxes feel satisfying and authentic. We have the same job in music: we should make decisions by studying a piece’s architecture rather than only basing them on what sounds good in the moment. For example, taking no rit into the bar 57 tutti makes it more effective to do one in the near identical passage into bar 281.

Bar 281 is a deceptive cadence, an exciting surprise. I pretend that I’m going to continue in G major as I did earlier, but suddenly I ‘change my mind’ and take it to the unexpected new key instead. Even if we’ve studied a piece for hundreds of hours and we’ve planned much of how we intend to ‘tell the story’, it should never feel planned from the listeners’ point of view.

One should give the illusion that one is making it up on the spot. It’s much more enjoyable to listen to an artist who seems spontaneous and inventive rather than ‘well practised.’

In bar 144 Bruch writes ‘poco rit’. Important here is what he’s telling you not to do – which is not to make a huge rit into bar 146. Keep it subtle. Bruch, ever inventive, does not repeat the poco rit formula in the equivalent passage from bar 251, but writes a stringendo instead. Many conductors cross this out; often it isn’t printed in the solo part at all. But it is possible to obey Bruch’s instructions if you play a small rit in bar 250, to give you room to rev up the engine and return to tempo for the subito pianissimo in bar 253.

One place where I overrule what Bruch has written is bar 297, where I don’t follow his stringendo quite yet. I like to take time on those four beautiful bars, as they are the final moments of contemplation before dashing to the end. Once I finally begin the real stringendo in bar 301, it’s off to the races. I recommend not making a huge rit at the end of the piece, after building such momentum into the Presto. Don’t sap the energy – leave the audience breathless!

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s July 2018 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition

INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING