April 21 & 23, 2022
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA
Donald Runnicles, conductor; David Coucheron, violin; Elisabeth Remy Johnson.
BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”
Mark Gresham | 23 APR 2022
When composer Max Bruch finished writing his Scottish Fantasy in 1880, he had not yet visited Scotland. That would not come until a year after the work’s premiere. Bruch did, however, have access to collections of Scottish tunes at the Munich Library, from which he drew tunes for what he entitled, in German, Fantasie für die Violine mit Orchester und Harfe unter freier Benutzung schottischer Volksmelodien, Op. 46 (“Fantasy for violin with orchestra and harp using Scottish folk melodies freely”).
The principal voice is the solo violin. Bruch dedicated the Fantasy to the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate. However, violinist Joseph Joachim played the solo part in the February 1881 premiere, with Bruch leading the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, where he was in a three-year stint as its conductor. Bruch was disappointed with Joachim’s performance but was delighted when Sarasate began performing the work.
But the Fantasy also features a prominent part for harp in accompaniment to the violin, paying homage to Scottish folk traditions, most substantially in the introduction, first, and last movements.
Thus in Thursday’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, concertmaster David Coucheron and principal harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson were positioned front-of-stage on either side of a bona fide Scotsman at the helm, principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles.
The Scottish Fantasy is a four-movement work, plus an introduction (“Einleitung”), based on Scottish folk melodies. Bruch built the first movement on the air, “Through the Wood, Laddie,” which reappears at the end of the second and fourth movements. Even his initial use confirms the “freely” qualifier in the work’s full German title. Compare the original tune source (top) with Bruch’s initial statement in the first movement:
Bruch based the second movement around “The Dusty Miller” (of the several Scottish tunes with that name, it’s the one also known as “Binny’s Jig”). The third on the folk song “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie.” And the fourth on the patriotic anthem with lyrics by Robert Burns, “Scots Wha Hae,” for which the tune itself, “Hey Tuttie Tatie,” a strathspey said to have been played at the battle of Bannockburn in which Robert the Bruce won independence for Scotland (1314), is much older and of unknown origin.
I love it whenever members of the home team are soloists.
Coucheron’s liquid lyricism prevailed in the highly embellished solo violin part. He had his share of robust passages, too, especially in the Finale, adding some additional kick to his wide range of expression.
Johnson’s busiest moments were when the harp was part of the larger orchestral texture. Still, she and Coucheron did have four bars at the start of the rousing Finale in which we got to hear just the two of them play together, fortissimo, in the vigorous dance theme, and almost alone for five bars shortly after when they played softly with only a pair of horns lurking in the background.
The performance of this colorful showpiece was a genuine delight.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, Op. 55 (aka the “Eroica Symphony”) is undoubtedly one of the most significant pieces in the history of Western music.
Despite the plethora of commentaries on biographical elements behind the work, such as the well-known abortion of its dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, what’s far more relevant is the Third Symphony’s musical importance.
The Eroica is a pivotal work both within Beethoven’s compositional style and for all of Western music. In it, Beethoven expanded the symphonic form to an unprecedented scope, far beyond the confines of eighteenth-century convention, transitioning from a Classical to a new Romantic sentiment and altering expectations for a four-movement symphony for the next two centuries.
On Thursday, we got a genuinely moving account of this landmark work from Runnicles and the ASO that felt fresh and vital. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Sir Donald Runnicles: donaldrunnicles.org
- David Coucheron: davidandjuliecoucheron.com/com
- Elisabeth Remy Johnson: elisabethremy.com
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.