Max Bruch's famous Violin Concerto No 1 contains clusters of notes so dense that after playing it the poor soloist's fingers must end up throbbing. First performed in 1868, this barnstorming piece of music is often cited as one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the violin. Listen to it and you'll hear why – it's a showcase for pretty much everything the violin can do.
The concerto goes to both extremities of the instrument's musical range, containing notes of raw, saw-like deepness along with pitches so high they seem to be aimed not at humans, but dogs – a challenge to any player's virtuosity. Oh, and did I mention that the piece has a rich melodic sweetness to it that if played too rough or unpolished will diminish it?
Bruch's concerto doesn't just require sharp finger work, however. As any violinist will tell you, that isn't necessarily the hardest part of any performance. It also obliges the performer to make quicksilver leaps of tone and pace. It's this breathtaking variety – kept under control by an unfailing concern with musical order – that makes the concerto one of the most-performed pieces of violin music.
The concerto's popularity has nonetheless given Bruch's reputation a problem: it's made him come across as a one-hit wonder. Bruch himself got a little sick of this. "I can't listen to this concerto anymore," he once complained to his publisher. "Do you suppose I've only written one concerto?"
One reason why Bruch’s other work never made such an impact is partly because of the 19th century’s musical politics – in the century’s culture war, he found himself backing the wrong side. During Bruch’s lifetime, German music split between a traditionalist camp, headed by Johannes Brahms, and the avant-garde, headed by Richard Wagner. Bruch was decidedly a traditionalist, leading to him being marked down as a dogged conservative, a composer who produced consistently good music but who failed to push the envelope.
This may have possibly been true, but it hardly matters now. We look to music composed 150 years ago not because it shows us the future, but because it has stood the test of time. And despite Bruch's reputation, his famous concerto actually broke the mould not just in its popularity, but in the way it's put together. The first movement is actually listed as a prelude, a gorgeous call and response between violin and orchestra that (unusually) acts as a preamble to a main central movement. Here the solo violin develops a beautiful, song-like melody over a light breeze of strings, while the tightest knot of virtuoso playing explodes in the concerto's final movement. It's an unusually paced, uplifting journey, one that has resulted in a firework display of standing ovations for its players through the piece's life. Let's just hope those string players give their hands a good rest afterwards.