“Everything one desires in a Romantic concerto”

Our first concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley in conversation

Noah Bendix-Balgley
(Photo: Sebastian Hänel)

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 brought the 28-year-old composer his first great artistic success. On the 100th anniversary of his death, the Berliner Philharmoniker will perform the work under the baton of Marek Janowski, an outstanding specialist in the late-Romantic repertoire. The soloist is Noah Bendix-Balgley, first concertmaster of the orchestra. In an interview, he tells us why the work is still so popular today, what challenges it presents for a violinist, and what continues to fascinate him about this concerto.

Why is the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 so important for a violinist?
The Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 is one of the essential romantic violin concertos, and it has been popular with audiences and with violinists since it was premiered. It has everything one desires in a Romantic concerto: lyrical melodies, recitative-like cadenzas, technical fireworks for the soloist, and rhythmic drive and drama.

Why do you love this concerto, and what are the challenges and difficulties for a violinist to play this piece?
I first learned this concerto as a student when I was 12 years old. I have returned to it multiple times since. I never tire of the beauty and lyricism of Bruch’s writing. This is a work that sits well on the violin and brings out many qualities of the instrument. Certainly one reason for this is that Bruch collaborated with Joseph Joachim when he composed the work. One of the challenges with this piece is that it is so popular and it has been recorded many times (by basically every known violin soloist). As a result, there are certain traditions and habits that become routine in the interpretation of the work. Each time I prepare this piece for a new performance, I try to examine the score with a fresh perspective. I ask myself whether I am choosing a phrasing or fingering because it is what the score calls for, or if it is because it has become by default a performance tradition, repeated by violinist after violinist over the years!

Which figures, harmonies and melodies are typical for this piece?
The form of this concerto is unusual. Typically the first movement of a Romantic concerto would be the longest and most substantial, but in this work, Bruch titles the first movement “Vorspiel”. It has 4 separate recitative statements by the solo violin, two at the beginning of the work, and two at the end of the first movement, which goes attacca (without pause) into the slow 2nd movement. In fact the slow movement is the longest. Because of the unusual structure of the work, Bruch considered titling it a ʻFantasiaʼ, but was convinced by Joseph Joachim that the musical material and development was significant and serious enough to warrant the title ʻConcertoʼ.

How is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra?
The violin soloist is clearly front and centre in this piece. This is established right at the beginning with the first solo entrance after a timpani roll and short musical figure in the winds. The orchestra does have an important role though, and Bruch establishes musical dialogues between soloist and orchestra at critical moments, for example, in the lyrical second theme of the 1st movement, or the development of the 2nd movement. The development section of the 1st movement culminates in a dramatic and extended orchestral tutti. But in the end, the violin has the last word in the movement, with two solo recitatives that echo the opening.

When the name Max Bruch appears on concert programmes today, it is usually his First Violin Concerto that is performed.  Why is it that his other pieces are hardly known?
Max Bruch wrote many wonderful works during his long and fruitful career, including the Scottish Fantasy, Kol Nidrei and two other violin concertos as well as great chamber music.  During his lifetime he was very frustrated that most people only knew his First Violin Concerto and not his other compositions. I believe one reason is that Bruch kept his Romantic, lush compositional style throughout his career.  He did not change his style with the times. 

Marek Janowski
(Photo: Felix Broede)
Max Bruch and Joseph Joachim
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)