Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, is one of the most beloved works in the violin concerto repertoire. Composed in 1866, it has become a staple of the concert hall and a favourite of violinists and audiences alike. The work is characterised by its soaring melodies, virtuosic violin writing, and rich orchestration, making it a true masterpiece of the Romantic era.
Joseph Joachim, the renowned violinist for whom this piece was composed, once famously declared that “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest and most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. Brahms’s vies with it in seriousness. The richest, most seductive was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.” Joachim’s placement of the Bruch concerto in this highest tier of violin concertos is high praise and certainly well-deserved. The emotional impact of the Bruch concerto is simply astounding, and its slow movement ranks among the most magnificent works ever composed for the violin.
Max Bruch initially named the first movement of his concerto Introduzione-Fantasia, but later changed it to Vorspiel (Prelude). The movement features alternating orchestral chord sequences and solo flourishes, reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, but with a dreamier quality. Bruch skilfully weaves two expansive and memorable melodies into the movement, creating a “real” first movement up to the point where a development section would typically be expected. Instead of following convention, Bruch returns to the opening chords and flourishes, using them to transition smoothly into the Adagio.
The Adagio presents a melody of great tenderness, with eloquent counterpoint, notably in the violas and first violins. The cellos and basses contribute to establishing a stronger rhythmic foundation through their gentle pizzicato, which facilitates the flow of the music and allows for the trading of motives between the solo violin and the woodwind/horn sections. A new musical subject, descending by a third, then a fourth and finally a fifth, is heard in the bassoons and horns, then in the flute and oboe, decorated by solo violin. The movement, overall, is in Eb major. Bruch’s shift from its Dominant of Bb major into Gb major is arresting and beautiful. The orchestral violins play the theme in this seemingly distant key, and the solo violin is then heard an octave higher. Breadth and volume develop from this place of intimacy, but as the movement draws to a close, the theme is suspended, and reluctant to find its repose. A long pause is followed by the marking of three pianissimos (ppp) in the strings and horn and the final ascent of the solo violin ebbs, falls, and dies away.
Bruch’s Finale ‒ Allegro energico is an exciting conclusion to the concerto, featuring a Hungarian Dance style and fervour. It’s worth noting that Brahms’ Violin Concerto, completed just ten years after Bruch’s, has a similar rhythmic vigour in its Finale theme, also in double-stopped thirds. The second main theme includes large operatic leaps, and Bruch marks the violin solo part to be played on its lowest string for richness and depth of tone. The virtuosic passages always remain melodic and complement the orchestral lines. The high, singing music echoes the soulful sweep of the first movement, providing a unity to the concerto. The music builds with stringendo, becoming faster, leading to a final Presto and a conclusion full of elation.