Fridrich Bruk’s 17th and 18th Symphonies Demand Attention

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Fridrich Bruk: Symphonies 17 and 18 (Toccata)

Some 15 years ago I was asked by one of the London orchestras to curate a series titled Other Russia, looking at the composers who fell or were pushed off the wayside under the Soviet Union. We were going to focus on the likes of Karamanov, Kancheli, Knaifel, Roslavets, Tishchenko, Ustvolskaya, Firsova and more. The scheme hit a brick wall when prominent conductors balked at unfamiliar repertoire and the orchestra feared a box-office frost, but it was a worthwhile exercise and one that some braver spirits should still take up.

Among the names I omitted out of ignorance was the remarkable Fridrich Bruk, a prolific movie composer and head of music at Lenfilm who kept quiet about the songs he wrote, knowing that for various political reasons they could not be performed. Eventually, in 1974, he managed to escape to Finland where he built a second life as a symphonist, looking back at the cultures he had lost.

The two symphonies on this breakthrough release are his latest. The 17th, which uses a piano as an orchestral instrument, harks back to his native Ukraine and its massacred Jewish population. The fourth movement contains wisps of folksong and clarinet wails. The 18th symphony, more explicit, is an outright assault on Tsarist and Soviet anti-Semitism.

Bruk’s style is not easy to define. Closer to Scriabin than Shostakovich, he builds a symphony out of fragmentary cultural references, assembling his shards into a structure that is at once disquieting and imposing. His use of Jewish melody bears no resemblance to socialist realism; rather, he performs a kind of psychoanalysis with elements of the unconscious that may, or may not, cohere into a healing whole. What is striking is his ability – possibly derived from film music – never to tax the listener’s patience. This essential recording, performed with great proficiency by the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra with conductor Maris Kupcs, demands widespread attention.

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About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review.

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