Discovering the Music of Fridrik Bruk

cover - TOCC0543

BRUK: Symphonies Nos. 19,1-2 20,3 212 / 1Arvydas Kazlauskas, bar-sax; 2Liepāja Symphony Orch.; 3Lithuanian State Symphony Orch.; Māris Kupčs, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0543

Fridrik Bruk (b. 1937), born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (misspelled on the album inlay as Kharkov) but a Finnish resident since 1974, is a prolific composer of tangos and symphonies. This CD presents the last three of the latter, all of them written in 2018.

Bruk’s music is dominated by Jewish themes, in part because he himself is Jewish and in part because, as he puts it in the liner notes, he believes that the vacuum left by the destruction of six million Jews during the Holocaust has been filled “by representatives of extreme nationalist trends, militant atheists, preachers of drug addiction and terrorism.” Since I am not a resident of Europe, I cannot of course verify or deny these trends. All I can tell you as an American watching my country erode is that it is being taken over by vicious Socialist-driven radicals who wish to shut down free speech, free thought and indeed the freedom to be an independent, autonomous people, pushing a culture of hedonism, rampant drug use and a firm denial of rational thinking. Alas, this movement is not associated here in America with “extreme nationalist trends.” On the contrary, the extreme nationalists in America are an extremely small number, ˃1% of our population.

With that being said, Bruk’s music is quite interesting. Although modern in harmony, it follows traditional lines of structure and development. The first symphony on this record, the 19th, is actually a concerto for baritone saxophone and orchestra. Among Bruk’s strengths are strong rhythms, interesting orchestration and very colorful orchestration. His music is stylized, but it is his style; he does not copy other composers. Despite borrowing certain techniques from different modern music trends over the past 60 years, nothing on this disc sounds like any other composer. Bruk is his own man.

One weakness that I noted, however, was a tendency towards rambling a bit and getting lost in his own musical rhetoric. This isn’t to say that Bruk isn’t a logical composer, only that at times the music tends to be a bit too cerebral for its own good. Composing in long forms is indeed an art of tightrope-walking. A few minutes into the second movement of the 19th Symphony, for instance, I felt that I had heard enough and that much of the music that followed was superfluous.

The 20th Symphony is also a sort of concerto, in this case a concerto grosso. There are spot solos for the cello, xylophone and trumpet in the first movement, and these add to the musical interest. By and large, too, the music of this symphony is not as atonal as the 20th. Although it does touch upon adjacent harmonies, filling some spaces of the music with bitonalism, the general feel of the music leans a bit more in the direction of tonality. Perhaps because of this, Bruk’s music is more tightly and concisely written, thus I found it more interesting. Within its quirky melodic lines and peppy rhythms, the music is oddly attractive.

Indeed, the second-movement “Adagietto” is also quite interesting, here using the xylophone in the background, playing quicker, more rhythmic music against the front line which (again) features prominent trumpet solos. Eventually, the music becomes quite agitated, with the drums banging behind the trumpet, receding from the sound barrier for spot solos by clarinet and violin (the latter with a “running” bass line behind it).which leads without pause into the faster, final movement, which even includes some jazz elements. This was a wonderful piece that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Bruk’s most recent symphony is darker and more serious, having been written “In Memory of Anne Frank.” Here he retains the rhythmic acuity of the previous two works while leaning the music towards more ominous harmonies, occasionally pulling back but more often than not leaning in. At times, the pressure is relieved simply by his stopping the music and then starting again at a different point, but over and over again it keeps leaning into these darker corners. Yet even within the first movement, there are also faster, more energetic passages, and although these too are set to bitonal harmonies there is a certain hopefulness in them, perhaps representing moments of perceived safety. Ironically, the second movement, titled “Presentiment,” is not only hopeful-sounding but rather energetic, including a bongo drum solo which ends the work.

A pretty interesting album, then, certainly worth checking out.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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