Throwing Off the Shackles with Max Bruch

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Liberty. © Charles Thibo

There’s music and there’s music. Some piece may trigger melancholy, some other may lead to introspection. Some piece will make me feel comfortable and some other piece will make me feel anxious. And then there’s the kind of composition that lifts me off the ground, that makes me connect to a higher spiritual awareness. Max Bruch’s Concerto for 2 Pianos in A-flat Minor (op. 88a) is such a piece: Majestic, a nonstop delight, it makes me feel like I am flying into the endless blueness of the sky, it stands for a life unrestrained by fear, for throwing off the shackles, for liberty.

Liberty. Such a big, important word. We take it for granted. It isn’t it. Millions of people cannot claim this essential human right for themselves. Look at what’s happening to demonstrators in Hong Kong. Look at what happened to the satirist Samantha Kureya in Zimbabwe. Bruch’s amazing concerto reminds me that the generation of my grand-parents had to fight to get their liberty back from a totalitarian regime. Max Bruch was dead by the time Adolf Hitler came to power, but he witnessed the street-fighting in Germany at the end of World War I. An omen.

Bruch wrote the concerto in 1912. It has four movements and is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (B♭), 2 bassoons, 4 horns (F), 2 trumpets (B♭), 3 trombones, timpani and strings. He was inspired by the American duo Rose and Ottilie Sutro, whom he had heard in 1911 play his Fantasy in D minor for 2 pianos, Op. 11. He apparently was so impressed that he agreed to write a double concerto for them.

He did not start from scratch however. He re-arranged music he had composed for suite for organ and orchestra. He granted the Sutro sisters the exclusive performing rights, but they rewrote the piece to adapt it to their abilities without Bruch’s permission and claimed the copyright. They played their version twice and then never again. They never played Bruch’s original version at all. Bruch never wanted it to be published or performed outside the US. Only decades after the Sutros’ death, the two pianists Nathan Twining and Martin Berkofsky reconstructed the original version from the sisters’ posthumous papers.

Quite a story! A story that takes me back to the subject of liberty. Liberty stops where the unalienable rights of others are at risk.

The Concerto for Two Pianos has been recorded by Piano Duo Genova & Dimitrov and the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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