BLOCH: String Ouartet No. 2. Prelude. Night. Two Pieces.

BLOCH: String Ouartet No. 2. Prelude. Night. Two Pieces. Pro Arte String Quartet. LAUREL LR-126, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert, $9.98.

In his brilliant essay, “Ferruccio Busoni: Historia Abscondita” (Fanfare VII: 3), Adrian Corleonis describes Busoni’s concept of “unity of key,” through which he circumvented the cul de sac of an over-systematized notion of tonal relationships that permeated the Austro-Germanic musical mentality like a religious obsession. Busoni’s “unity of key” was an alternative to the theoretical strait-jacket that soon led to serialism, which was embraced as scripture by those compelled to substitute one dogma for another. But, as Corleonis admits, Busoni was one of many composers during this period who had the courage and independence of mind to explore the opportunity for a new tonal freedom. Scriabin, Sibelius, Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, and many others — in addition to the obvious example of Debussy — all found their own individual ways around the tonality “problem,” exposing exciting possibilities rather than extinguishing them.

Ernest Bloch arrived on the scene at a time when the innovations of Debussy and Strauss (it is fashionable today to minimize the radical side of Strauss) were in the air. Drawing from them and from his own turbulently emotional Jewish temperament, he forged a highly articulate language in which the perennial polar balance between Dionysian abandon and Apollonian control achieved an unprecedented expressive tension. Bloch, perhaps less intellectually sophisticated than a Busoni, but musically cosmopolitan by instinct, plunged into the theoretical maelstrom without inhibition and seized the new tonal freedom with bold confidence, relying only on his own artistry and craftsmanship. It is in this, the development of a true musical “expressionism,” that Bloch’s greatest aesthetic contribution lies.

The Quartet No. 2 (1946) is the finest of Bloch’s five essays in the medium, joining the Violin Sonata No. 1 (1920) and the Piano Quintet No. 1 (1923) as his most important chamber music. In comparison with the two earlier works, however, the quartet reveals a higher level of compositional maturity. The previous tendency toward rhetorical extravagance is now distilled into tighter, more concentrated structural designs, with no sacrifice of emotional intensity. The work begins with a mysterious contemplation for unaccompanied violin, unstable both rhythmically and tonally. As this soliloquy is gradually answered contrapuntally by the remaining voices, a mood is set for the exploration of unknown spiritual territory — a mood, I might add, that reminds me strikingly of Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, although I may be alone in this perhaps strange association. (I have often reflected on the strong — if somewhat unlikely — parallel between these two composers.) By the time the last movement, a brilliant passacaglia and fugue, has reached its culmination, the forces of aberration and the forces of rationalism have achieved a partial reconciliation.

This new recording appeared too late to be included in the review of the Portland Quartet’s complete traversal of the Bloch string quartets (Arabesque 6511-3; seeFanfare VII: 4). The performance by the Pro Arte takes its place alongside their recent recording of the Quartet No. 1 (Laurel LR-120), setting a new standard in the interpretation of Bloch’s music. This group displays the kind of cohesive comprehension of the composer’s conception and the ability to realize that conception in sound that creates a performance tradition against which subsequent renditions must be compared. Hearing the Pro Arte Quartet play this music is hearing it for the first time. The recent Portland/Arabesque set is, sadly, a wasted effort. I only hope that the public response to these Laurel discs will be sufficient to stimulate the completion of the cycle by this extraordinary group of musicians.

As highly desirable bonuses, several miniatures for string quartet are also included on this disc. Each is finely wrought and representative of the spirit of Bloch’s major works. In fact, each could easily have served as a movement of a larger work, but for some reason or other was left alone. The Prelude (1925) is a beautifully simple, modal elegy. Night, composed during the same year and once available on a 78-rpm disc, is a typically Blochian nocturnal mood-sketch. TheTwo Pieces, one of which dates from 1938 and the other from 1950, function together as a sort of prelude and scherzo, somewhat more abstract in tone than the earlier pieces.

The sound quality of the recording is superb, with a natural sonic ambience, which is typical of the best Laurel discs. Surfaces are fine. 

BLOCH: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1; No. 2 (“Poème Mystique”). Baal Shem Suite. Abodah. Melodie.

BLOCH: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1; No. 2 (“Poème Mystique”).Alexis Galperine, violin; Frederic Aguessy, piano. ADDA 581044 [DDD]; 51:17. Produced by Christian Lemoine. (Distributed by Qualiton.)

BLOCH: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (“Poème Mystique”)Baal Shem Suite. Abodah. Melodie. Joshua Epstein, violin; Eugene de Canck, piano. SCHWANN MUSICA MUNDI VMS-1053 (LP). Produced by Heinz Klein. (Distributed by Koch Import Service.)

BLOCH: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (“Poème Mystique”). Baal Shem Suite. Abodah. Theodore Mamlock, violin: John van Buskirk, piano. DA CAMERA MAGNA SM-93097 (LP). Produced by Thomas Lazarus. (Distributed by Koch Import Service.)

These recent releases document ongoing interest in the music of Ernest Bloch. Indeed, two of them contribute quite handsomely to the continued upgrading of the composer’s discography especially with regard to the chamber works that form the central core of his output. Most notably, the Galperine/Aguessy performances set a new standard in recordings of the two magnificent violin sonatas. prompting a major updating of the discographic assessment that appeared in Fanfare 6:3 (pp. 73ff). One is further encouraged by the French company Adda’s announcement of this fine recording as Volume I of a complete traversal of the Bloch chamber music, following on the heels of Los Angeles-based Laurel’s similar — and highly praised — endeavor.

Especially impressive is the superb Galperine/Augessy performance of the Sonata No. 1 , a passionate, visionary work that ranks with the Mennin and Shostakovich sonatas as one of the most challenging and profoundly meaningful violin sonatas in the 20th-century repertoire. No previous recording of this work has been wholly satisfactory: even the razor-sharp Heifetz performance (no longer available on LP, but planned for release on CD in the future) suffers from a murky, distant capturing of the all-important piano part — a deficiency of nearly all previous recordings. In a work like this, which is truly symphonic in its attitude and scope, with a piano part that is, undeniably, more an orchestral reduction than an idiomatic piano accompaniment, this weakness is especially damaging. But in this new recording, Frederic Aguessy’s forceful, spaciously recorded piano part forms a rich, powerful backdrop-indeed, a contrapuntal and dramatic foil-that provides a balanced partnership for violinist Galperine’s brilliant reading. In comparison to Heifetz-protégé Yukiko Kamei (Laurel LR-121 — till now the preferred recording. along with the Heifetz rendition, despite mediocre sound quality), Galperine’s tone is far more refined and his technique more assured, resulting in a reading of greater vigor and incisiveness. It is also more intensely engaged than the overly refined, poorly recorded Oliveira version (Vox Cum Laude 9021).

Written some four years later, the Sonata No. 2. “Poème Mystique,” was conceived as something of a spiritual antidote to the pessimism and violence of the Sonata No. 1. It consists of one rhapsodic movement, whose centerpiece is a warmly heartfelt hymn built from both Hebraic and Gregorian elements. Here Galperine’s smooth, sweet tone soars, making for a richly gratifying performance, except for one unfortunate detail: an egregious wrong note, hit head-on, doubled at the octave, two measures before [15]. Without clashing with the surrounding harmony. it apparently remained unnoticed. But those who know the work will notice. Hopefully, this will be corrected in future pressings. In any case, the defect is not serious enough to discourage me from recommending this otherwise superlative recording.

Joshua Epstein plays the note correctly in his equally fine reading of the “Poème Mystique” on Schwann Musica Mundi. This meticulous German production also contains excellent performances of the Baal Shem Suite, Abodah, and Melodie. Epstein also plays in a sensitive, refined manner, somewhat restraining the music’s passion, but not to the point of sounding cold or detached. Consequently the Baal Shem Suite, probably Bloch’s most popular violin piece and possibly his most overtly and obviously Hebraic, is presented in a considerably less histrionic manner than it often is heard. Abodah, a soulful incantation in a comparable vein, is played tastefully, as is the brief, rarely heard Melodie. Though written in 1929, during the same prolific decade that saw the appearance of the other works heard here, this strangely unsentimental yet sweetly attractive piece is barely recognizable as a work of Bloch. It is most welcome in what I believe is its first recording.

What is one to say about the Da Camera Magna release? Theodore Mamlock is an older violinist, born in Germany and active in Israel. He is probably sincere in his devotion to the music of Bloch. However, at this stage of his career, his tone and intonation are so uncertain that no one would want to listen to this recording for more than a few minutes. I, however, responsible reviewer that I am, listened to the entire disc. Its release was a serious error in judgment. 

BLOCH: Symphony in C# minor

BLOCH: Symphony in C# minor. St. Louis Philharmonic conducted by Robert Hart Baker. ERNEST BLOCH SOCIETY EBS-001 [free with $15 membership in Ernest Bloch Society, 34844 Old Stage Road, Gualala, CA 95445].

Here, for the first time on records, is the long-awaited Symphony in C-Sharp minor of Ernest Bloch. Upon hearing the Z1-year-old composer render it at the piano, Eugene Ysaye exclaimed, “This is beautiful, large, powerful, of immense scope…. the work of an artist and poet.” Romain Rolland wrote, “Your symphyony is one of the most important creations of the modern school. I do not know of any other work in which is revealed a more opulent, a more vigorous, a more impassioned temperament…. I guarantee that you will become one of the master musicians of our time.”

Bloch composed the work in Munich in 1901, shortly after completing his studies with Iwan Knorr in Frankfurt. Its first complete performance took place in Geneva in 1908, under the direction of Bernhard Stavenhagen. There were several subsequent performances, but the large, demanding work had not been played in more than 30 years-nor for nearly 60 years in this country. Then in January 1984, the symphony was presented by the St. Louis Philharmonic, an amateur ensemble that Eugene Ormandy described as “the finest nonprofessional orchestra in the world.” This recording derives from that performance.

Many composers have concluded their period of apprenticeship with a particularly ambitious statement. On rare occasions, such a work proves to be a masterpiece, e.g., Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder; but usually not, e.g., Stravinsky’s Symphony in Eb. But in either case, such works are fascinating, because they usually reveal, with little camouflage, the formative stylistic influences and aesthetic standards operating on the composer as his identity is being formed, as well as the extent of his mastery of the technical matters required in order to meet these standards. It is also fascinating to contemplate the degree and manner in which the issues and concerns set forth in such a work are retained and developed in the composer’s maturity.

All these factors make Bloch’s Symphony in C# minor an important — indeed, indispensable — item for those who regard Bloch as one of the seminal musical figures of the first half of this century. The work, scored for large orchestra, lasts 46 minutes. The spirit of the symphony is made clear from the beginning of the first movement, a throbbing, portentous introduction that builds to a huge climax before the appearance of the main allegro agitato. Bloch initially entitled this movement, “The Tragedy of Life — Doubts, Struggles, Hopes”; I am sure that the reader can already begin to imagine the music — a vehement late-Romantic drama of metaphysical conflicts, in which the sense of struggle is relieved only by a subordinate theme of ardent lyricism.

While the experienced listener will have no difficulty identifying the work as to time and place, there are no indications or earmarks identifying it as a work of Bloch. Only in the third movement do elements of the composer’s mature style emerge at all. The music does not really resemble the style of any composer in particular, but does suggest a generalized sense of turn-of-the-century German music with a French touch — not Debussy, though, so much as d’Indy.

The second movement is the weakest, in which a melody of Mahlerian tenderness is overdeveloped, becoming mawkish in the extreme, and culminates in a grandiose apotheosis that is intolerably blatant. One might mention at this point that while he was writing the symphony, Bloch was still (eagerly) awaiting his first exposure to the music of Mahler. This took place in 1903, when he heard the “Resurrection” Symphony in Basel. He described it as “a titanic work…. among the greatest ever born of human genius…. His music, everywhere expressive, is a means of recreating life, of crystallizing joy, suffering and all human emotions……”  Considering these comments in light of the symphony he had written two years earlier, one realizes that Bloch, always a fervent proponent of music as a vehicle for emotion, must have seen Mahler as a kindred spirit, whose independent pursuit of similar goals must have confirmed for him the legitimacy of his own strivings. Ultimately, owing partly to biographical circumstances — his longevity among them — Bloch developed a broader, more fully evolved musical personality. 

The third movement is a driving scherzo, somewhat Brucknerian in tone, but with tritones and augmented triads featured prominently, which provide the only evidence in the work of Bloch’s mature style. Contrasting material features the kind of Swiss Alpine pastoralism also found in Helvetia and the third movement of the Concerto Grosso No.1.

The fourth movement is (what else?) a large symphonic fugue, based on a subject whose angularity again suggests Mahler. After a diligent workout, the entire symphony culminates in a reprise of the two elements of faith and hope: the second theme of the first movement and the melody of the slow movement, now inflated to a level of grandiloquence exceeding anything heard earlier in the work.

The symphony proclaims itself as a work of apprenticeship through a consistent tendency toward overelaboration: that which could be suggested or implied is always spelled out completely. Of course, if this is the work of an apprentice, he is a talented and accomplished apprentice, indeed: attention is paid at all times to matters of motivic development, harmonic richness, melodic growth, formal balance, contrapuntal interest, splendor of orchestration — nothing is overlooked. The tone is serious and sincere. But, unfortunately, there is nothing in the entire work that is really surprising, that takes one’s interest from the musicological to the purely musical. It simply does not proceed in any direction that one hasn’t predicted beforehand, nor is the thematic material really striking in any state of transformation or development. In trying to place the work for the reader, the closest I can come is the Symphony No. 2 of Scriabin, composed at about the same time, and sharing many of the very same stylistic and structural traits. But even in that work the quality of Scriabin’s thematic material is far more distinctive. (Yes, Scriabin was eight years older at the time.)

It is difficult to evaluate this performance with any sense of fairness. First of all, we are deeply indebted to the orchestra and to its conductor Robert Hart Baker for making available a work that knowledgeable listeners have been clamoring to hear for years. At the same time honesty compels one to concede that there is no way a nonprofessional orchestra can play a work as demanding as this without sounding exactly like what it is. Typically, passages in the extreme registers are badly out of tune and ragged — the players are clearly strained. But the totality does hold together; it does not require great imagination to conjure in one’s mind what a performance of the work by the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, might sound like. Baker, who is barely 30 years old, has won great praise for his ambitious programming of difficult and lesser-known works. His conception of the piece is quite convincing, and the orchestra realizes that conception without stinting in its efforts; it is this that enables one to fully grasp the work in spite of deficiencies in execution and sonority.

This private release was recorded with high-quality equipment and pressed by Europadisk, using direct metal mastering, so that the quality of the record itself is superb. Extensive and highly informative program notes are included. This is a release of unquestionable musicological importance, and I am grateful that it has been made available.   

THE GLENN GOULD SILVER JUBILEE ALBUM

THE GLENN GOULD SILVER JUBILEE ALBUM. Glenn Gould, piano, etc. CBS MASTERWORKS M2X 35914 (two LPs), produced by Andrew Kazdin, Paul Myers, and Glenn Gould.
BEETHOVEN/LISZT: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68: First movement. GOULD: So You Want to Write a Fugue (performed by Elizabeth Benson-Guy, soprano; Anita Darian, mezzo-soprano; Charles Bressler, tenor; Donald Gramm, baritone; Juilliard String Quartet; Vladimir Golschmann, conductor). R. STRAUSS: Ophelia Lieder, Op. 67 (with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano). SCRIABIN: Two Preludes, Op. 57. SCARLATTI: Three Sonatas. C.P.E. BACH: Wurttemberg Sonata No. 1. A GLENN GOULD FANTASY.

It is now 25 years since Glenn Gould’s brilliantly idiosyncratic debut recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations stunned the music world. That recording set the tone for a career that, while consistently provocative, has offered unparalleled instrumental mastery and awesomely penetrating musicianship in the service of a refreshingly original and inquiring intellect. Whether or not the listener happens to share the pianist’s inclination towards a particular interpretive vagary, often chosen explicitly for shock value (and Gould’s discography contains at least something to offend or infuriate everyone), there is no denying that he has been virtually alone amid a pseudo-highbrow world of “serious” music dominated by intellectually vacuous superstars and their mediocre musicianship. It is to CBS’ distinct credit that throughout the years in which Gould has been absent from the recital stage, it has provided him with a forum on which to share with us his musical insights.

One disc of this special two-record set presents a varied potpourri of unusual musical items, recorded between 1964 and 1972, and apparently lying around ever since, until the appropriate opportunity arose. The other record is called “A Glenn Gould Fantasy,” in which the pianist indulges another of his chief enthusiasms—the creation of elaborately mixed and edited audio productions. Gould has produced a number of such aural documentaries—not all specifically related to music—for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, generating the sort of controversy that seems to accompany most of his endeavors.

As the list of contents shows, the first disc covers a wide musical range, but each little piece receives the microscopic attention to detail that marks all of Gould’s work. For me, the most rewarding item is the first movement from the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Is it not typically perverse of Gould to select a portion of the one Beethoven symphony whose effect is most dependent on orchestral color? How­ever, my skepticism disappeared when I heard the first phrase. Gould brings this music to life with a depth of understanding that rivals that of the great Beethoven conductors, and the absence of the orchestra, rather than a liability, becomes a virtue, as the pianist exerts precise control over the course of every musical strand. The radiance of the piano tone itself and the novelty of hearing certain textures and figurations on the piano are particu­larly exciting. Only during the development section does Gould’s highly analytical inter­pretation draw attention to weaknesses in the structure of the movement itself, making it sound even sillier than usual.

The other particularly interesting item is Gould’s own little composition So You Want to Write a Fugue. Since it was recorded in 1964, this gem has floated around on various limited issues, but this is its first “official” commercial release. Scored for vocal quartet and string quartet, it is a rare accomplishment: a funny piece of music that can actually be enjoyed as music or as fun, and whose wit is integrated into the musical structure itself. Without explaining the joke, I will say that it is a tour de force of contrapuntal technique, style mimicry, quotation weaving, and interaction between words and music. The performers manage well with the work’s considerable difficulties in execution, al­though the sound quality is awfully tight and constricted.

The remainder of the pieces are all in the way of odds and ends, although each is done thoughtfully and in exquisite taste. Only in the sonata by C.P.E. Bach did I feel that an effort was made to force more meaning than there is into the essentially empty music.

The second disc helps us to know Glenn Gould the man, although his articles and reviews over the years have modified the early view of him as a gifted sociopath into the impression of a verbally articulate, witty, and unconventional thinker with a wide range of interests (I remember with amusement his analytical reflection on the artistic significance of Petula Clark) who happens to be an eccentric, solitary sort. Perhaps I should add that, as someone who agrees that public musical performance is an anachronistic social vestige, soon to become obsolete, which appeals to the lower qualities of the audience, and is limited in artistic potential compared with the possibilities of recording—possibilities that Gould has been among the more adventurous in exploring—I look with approval on both his retirement from public performance and on his use of the recording medium as an artistic end in itself. Nevertheless, “A Glenn Gould Fantasy” suggests quite explicitly some deeper aspects of the pianist’s professional behavior.

The “Fantasy” takes the form of a radio program in which Gould confronts an assortment of questioners: a cerebral German abstractionist, a snide English stylistic purist, an American avant-garde hipster, and a belligerent Hungarian social realist. All but the last are portrayed, in appropriate dialect, by Gould himself. The “group” discusses such topics as the performance on the piano of music originally conceived for other instruments, the problem of retaining spontaneity in repeated performances, the recording of music as analogous to the creation of film, and the significance of Gould’s sound docu­mentaries. Gould has covered much of this ground elsewhere, although those unfamiliar with his points of view on these matters, and those unfamiliar with his various radio and television personae, will probably find the production entertaining.

But, in truth, this “Fantasy” is a tremendously self-indulgent ego trip; much of the 55 minutes is wasted on sophomoric foolishness, and a good deal is simply not as funny or as interesting as Gould seems to think it is. One gains the impression that Gould is rather like a precocious child who entertains himself in elaborate play with expensive toys in lieu of human interaction. In discussing the themes that underlie his “Solitude Trilogy” of sound documentaries, he describes his interest in people “who want to be in the world, but not of the world,” in people who refuse “to be drawn into the Zeitgeist,” the “tremendously tyrannical force [that] has to be overthrown in one’s life.” It is not a very radical leap to suggest that the themes of isolation and solitude have extreme personal significance for Gould, who, renouncing the dangers of spontaneous interaction with reality, has found through technological manipulations a means of exerting total control over all communication with the surrounding society (through recordings, articles, sound documentaries, and fabricated hypothetical interviews). There is thus a hot-house quality to his humor and to the imaginary personages with whom he populates his fantasies that reflects a psychological world into which stimuli are carefully filtered. That this may be an underlying psychodynamic does not invalidate the decisions he has made as a musician, nor even the ostensible rationales for these decisions. But it does shed some light on this reclusive personality who has been a unique and enigmatic figure on the musical horizon for the past quarter-century, and on the strange objective intimacy of his musicianship as well.