BLOCH Two Psalms. Three Jewish Poems. Baal Shem Suite. Suite Hébraïque

BLOCH Two Psalms.Three Jewish Poems. Baal Shem Suite. Suite Hébraïque – Steven Sloane, cond; German SO, Berlin; Christiane Oelze (sop); Antje Weithaas (vn); Tabea Zimmermann (va) – CAPRICCIO 5001 (65:55)

This is a perfectly adequate recording of four of Ernest Bloch’s lesser Jewish-oriented works. Those who are familiar with the masterpieces among the composer’s efforts to capture “the Jewish soul” in music—Schelomo, the Israel Symphony, and the Sacred Service—and are moved to expand their range of familiarity are not likely to be disappointed by this release. However, serious devotees of the music of Bloch may well have these pieces already, and, possibly, in superior performances found with other couplings.

For example, the settings of Psalms 114 and 137, preceded by a 4-minute orchestral prelude, are the earliest works (1912-14) of what has come to be known as Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle.” This is deeply heart-felt music along the same stylistic lines as his better-known pieces from this period. German soprano Christiane Oelze offers a competent reading, while American conductor Steven Sloane leads the German orchestra (formerly known as the Berlin Radio Orchestra) in a sympathetic rendition of the orchestral prelude and accompaniment. However, a somewhat more passionate interpretation can be found on the French Timpani label (1C1149), which features the marginally more pleasing soprano Mireille Delunsch, accompanied by the Luxembourg Philharmonic, under the direction of David Shallon. That all-Bloch recording, which I recommend highly, also includes the composer’s setting of the Psalm 22, as well as several other rarely heard works.

Dating from the same period are the Three Jewish Poems. These are definitely the weakest works of the “Jewish Cycle”—extravagantly exotic, flamboyantly orchestrated, but largely pictorial symphonic tableaux. Aesthetically they share more in common with the descriptive music of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov and Respighi than with the intensely personal works—both ethnically flavored and ethnically neutral—that place Bloch among the greats of the 20th century. Again we are offered an adequate reading of the work, but one that is somewhat thin in texture and sonority and pale in expression. A heartier, more robust performance can be found on a highly recommended ASV release (CD DCA 1019), which features the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Dalia Atlas. That CD also offers two rewarding and revealing orchestral interludes from the composer’s early opera Macbeth, as well as the last of his five symphonies, the Symphony in E-flat.

The Baal Shem Suite is one of Bloch’s most frequently performed works, usually heard in its original version for violin and piano. However, it is far more effective in the composer’s own orchestration, which appeared in 1939. German violinist Antje Weithaas offers a fine reading, with some unusual phrasing that captures the music’s cantorial origins. I have nothing to criticize in this performance, but lean slightly in the direction of the recording I reviewed most recently, a BIS release (SACD-1662) that features the extraordinary violinist Vadim Gluzman in a program that also includes works of Barber and Bernstein. His playing combines absolute precision with gripping emotional intensity, and appeals to me just a bit more.

Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque (1951) exists in several versions, the original scored for viola and piano. But there is also a version for violin and piano, as well as versions for each solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. As always with Bloch, orchestral versions are preferable. The work itself is a little pallid emotionally, relative to the composer’s norm, but is quite attractive. (Most notable is a reference in both the first and third movements to Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which seems too obvious to be accidental, although I have never seen or heard mention of it anywhere.) German violist Tabea Zimmermann provides a superb reading of the solo part, resulting in a performance that is as good as any I’ve heard.

BLOCH Baal Shem. BERNSTEIN Serenade. BARBER Violin Concerto

BLOCH Baal Shem. BERNSTEIN Serenade. BARBER Violin Concerto – Vadim Gluzman (vn); John Neschling, cond; São Paulo SO – BIS SACD-1662 (70:31)

I have reviewed several previous recordings featuring the artistry of Ukrainian-Israeli-American Vadim Gluzman, and have found the playing of this violinist, now in his late 30s, to reveal impeccable technical precision, as well as considerable power and passion. His performances of staples of the 20th-century violin repertoire, such as the searingly intense Shostakovich sonata, rank with those of the greatest artists who have addressed these works. This new recording meets the same high standard. The only problem is this: We live at a time when violinists of the highest caliber are plentiful. Can the classical music marketplace support this number of fine artists? Certainly there is little or nothing of importance to be gleaned from new recordings of the popular concertos of the 19th century, which glut the catalogs. But now, even relatively recent works that were novelties just a few decades ago have been adequately represented. So one confronts the familiar question: To whom is this new release directed? Do the virtues of SACD recording technology place this recording ahead of other contenders? The Barber concerto, lovely as it is, has become a “war-horse;” virtually every violinist of the first rank has recorded it, as have many lesser lights. The Bernstein Serenade, an ingratiating conflation of reminiscences of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Der Rosenkavalier, captured the attention of violinists more recently perhaps, but a quick search reveals more than a dozen performances of this engaging work, many featuring the world’s most celebrated soloists. The Bloch proves to be the relative novelty here, as Baal Shem, one of the composer’s most popular compositions in its original violin-piano version, is heard here in the less familiar orchestral transcription. It is far superior in this latter garb, which gives considerable stature to a work that often impresses as Jewish salon music. I have never heard the familiar “Nigun” movement played with such incisive intensity, unblemished by sentimental excesses. But even this orchestral version has been available on recording for some time now. So I return to my original question: To whom is this new release addressed? The SACD format does provide an additional degree of detail, but not enough to warrant replacing a previously satisfying, relatively recent recording. I raise these points not to disparage Mr. Gluzman in the slightest—his playing here is truly stupendous—nor to needle BIS—for many years one of the world’s most adventurous record companies—but to raise what is becoming an increasing concern: the rapidly growing number of superior performing artists with no indication of a comparable increase in the size of the market for such talent. I suppose that the consumer of this new release is likely to be a violin enthusiast whose interest is perhaps just beginning to expand beyond the standards of the 19th century. I can assure those listeners that they can proceed with confidence: This recording represents the three works to their fullest advantage. And, to those who respond defensively that the whole violin repertoire has been recorded—what do I expect them to play?—I reply, there are still important works that have not been recorded, or recorded adequately.
            
An additional dimension of interest here is the playing of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Brazilian-born, Vienna-trained John Neschling. Neschling, a composer as well as conductor, claims to be a grand-nephew of both Arnold Schoenberg and Artur Bodanzky. A controversial figure, he is acknowledged to have raised the orchestra’s standard of performance considerably, although personal issues resulted in the termination of his contract last year. Apparently he is being replaced by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Although a recording featuring a soloist is not the ideal context in which to evaluate an orchestra, the São Paulo ensemble offers accompaniments of remarkable clarity, precision, and richness.

BLOCH: Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2; In the Mountains: Night; Paysages; Two Pieces; Suite for Viola and Piano. Suite Hébraïque. Suite for Viola Solo. Baal Shem Suite: Nigun. (2 CD’s)

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2; In the Mountains: Night; Paysages; Two Pieces • Goldner St Qt; Piers Lane (pn) • HYPERION CDA67638 (70:27)

BLOCH Suite for Viola and Piano. Suite Hébraïque. Suite for Viola Solo. Baal Shem Suite: Nigun • Karen Elaine (va); Delores Stevens (pn); David Amos, cond; London SO2 • LAUREL LR-864, ADD (63:52)

It wasn’t that long ago when discographic representation of Ernest Bloch’s chamber music—which includes most of his greatest works—consisted of largely mediocre performances, clueless as to the music’s expressive articulation and performance requirements. Even today, academic musicology and those whose education derives from it continue to remain ignorant of Bloch’s role and stature within the history of 20th-century music. However, as usual, record companies are way ahead of academia: Outstanding, deeply committed performances of Bloch’s music—including the chamber works—abound today, readily available for interested listeners, students, performers, et al. to discover, study, and enjoy. The two recent releases discussed here further contribute to this trend.

Bloch’s two piano quintets are among his greatest and most representative works. Composed some 34 years apart, they illustrate the evolutionary course of Bloch’s expressive apparatus from his early maturity through his late maturity. The earlier work is about 35 minutes long, while its successor is less than 20; the later work is less rhetorical, less hyperbolic, more concentrated, but no less intense, no less serious, no less grim in its emotional coloration, although both works conclude with a beatific serenity—a sense of acceptance, or resolution, that seemed essential to the composer’s world-view.

When I began writing for Fanfare, there was no recording of the Quintet No. 2; few even knew the work existed, and No. 1 was typically identified simply as “Piano Quintet.” Today there must be half a dozen performances, and the two works are natural discmates, as they appear on this Hyperion release. And most of these performances are superb. The Goldner String Quartet is an Australian ensemble, and pianist Piers Lane, though born in England, is also based “down under”—not the most obvious source for informed performances of the music of Bloch. And, judging from the photos in the program booklet, these are all young musicians. Their performances are brisk, refined, and technically acute, with no shortage of passionate emotional commitment—in short, they are fully adequate readings, and no prospective consumer, drawn to this particularly well-designed program, is likely to be disappointed. For comparison I selected the two recordings I have hitherto found most satisfying: the Aura Quartet with pianist Hans Joerg Fink (Musiques Suisses MGB CD 6203) and the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Howard Karp (formerly on Laurel LR-848CD, but now divided between two different issues, each with additional pairings; see www.laurelrecord.com for details). A close assessment finds the new contenders skimming over the surface a bit; more notable than that, however, Hyperion mixes the piano a bit too far in the background. I hasten to emphasize: These are very minor cavils—nothing like the kinds of deficiencies found in pre-1980 recorded performances—and only become evident in direct, side-by-side listening. But the Pro Arte/Karp renditions match power and precision to an ideal degree, and still loom as the best recorded performances of these works ever. The Aura/Fink performances fall somewhere in between—a little more bite and intensity than Goldner/Lane, but not quite the power of Pro Arte/Karp. 

Though they may appear to be trifles, the filler pieces on the Hyperion disc are not to be overlooked. Paysages, composed—as was the Quintet No. 1—in 1923, comprises three sketches, each associated with a particular geographical region: the Arctic, the Swiss Alps, and the South Sea islands. But this is far from travelogue music, as Bloch was not seeking to depict locations, as much as spiritual states of mind that he associated with those locations. As such they are rewarding on a deeper level than one might otherwise expect. “Night,” one of three short pieces—also dating from 1923—grouped under the title In the Mountains, is one of the mysterious nocturnes which Bloch was so fond of writing. This one is dedicated to his student Roger Sessions. And what could appear more “miscellaneous” than Two Pieces for string quartet, one written in 1938 and the other in 1950? But these are two highly expressive and very substantive, if brief, pieces—the first, slow and reflective; the second, vigorous and aggressive. Because they appear to be mere scraps, they are unlikely ever to attract much attention, but they are first-rate miniatures, as finely wrought as any of the composer’s string quartets, with subtle mood-painting and large emotional gestures. These short pieces have also been recorded by the Pro Arte Quartet for Laurel (on LR-826CD and LR-841CD), and, as with the quintets, their performances are marginally more intense and vigorous. But again, heard on their own, the Goldner performances are fine.

The new Laurel release (the company has built a considerable reputation for its fine Bloch recordings) focuses on the composer’s viola music. (I should add that although this is a new release, most of the music was actually recorded in 1990.) Much the same situation applies here as with the Piano Quintets: After many years of representation via mediocre performances, these not insignificant works can now be found on several recital discs in fine performances. Karen Elaine is active in the West Coast music scene, as a composer as well as violist. (She is also, according to the accompanying notes, an expert scuba diver and instructor!) 

Bloch’s major viola work is the Suite for Viola and Piano, composed in 1919. Winner of an auspicious award and generally well-received by critics, this composition played an important role in spreading the composer’s reputation. Bloch’s own instrument was the violin, and he expressed himself eloquently and naturally via string instruments. He was also a brilliant orchestrator. However, his writing for piano does not reveal a similar facility. He must have been aware of this to some extent, because he eventually orchestrated many of his works that originally featured the piano. In the case of the Suite for Viola and Piano, the orchestration followed less than a year later. This exotic, highly perfumed, but rather prolix work is far more successful with orchestral accompaniment, as its rich colors greatly enhance what can only be hinted at on the piano. The Suite Hébraïque was originally composed for viola and piano in 1951; its greatly improved orchestral version appeared two years later. From the standpoint of the consumer, if the latter work is represented here in its orchestral transcription, why not the Suite for Viola and Piano as well? I am sure that the answer involves various practical factors, finances among them. Nevertheless the question is sure to arise in the minds of most prospective consumers.

As the Quintet No. 2 represents a later parallel to its predecessor, the Suite Hébraïque may be seen as an analogue to the Baal Shem Suite, composed almost three decades earlier. Whereas the earlier work exudes its earthy shtetl origins freely and openly, the later one, while unmistakably suggestive of Judaica, exhibits a modicum of distance and reserve, suggestive and descriptive, rather than self-expressive. Elaine’s performance of the work is generally fine, more robust and energetic than Gérard Causseé’s performance with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Cascavelle (RSR-6170), although not without some minor technical blemishes. Elaine receives solid support from the London Symphony Orchestra under David Amos’s able direction. 

Elaine’s performance of the Suite for Viola and Piano is also generally good, fully grasping the spirit and character of the work. However, in comparison with Ernst and Lory Wallfisch’s excellent recording of Bloch’s music for viola and piano (on EBS 6044), Elaine’s intonation is not quite as secure nor her articulation quite as sharp, while Lory Wallfisch proves a more forceful partner than Delores Stevens in this very forceful music.

During his final years, Bloch composed a series of solo suites in the manner of Bach: three for cello (1956-57), two for violin (1958), and one for viola. He died before completing the latter work, although Elaine has provided a plausible ending of her own. Many commentators have waxed ecstatic over these works, proclaiming them the crowning achievements of his oeuvre, the ultimate distillation of his basic compositional essence. I have no desire to tear these works down, but I do feel compelled to state that I do not share this feeling, finding them rather dessicated and academic. Elaine’s performance is a bit more relaxed than Wallfisch’s, but reveals the same sort of technical blemishes found in the other works.

Perhaps the most interesting entry on this new release is the transcription for viola and string quartet (done by Elaine herself) of “Nigun.” Probably as frequently performed as Schelomo, “Nigun” is the second movement—and the high-point—of the Baal Shem Suite, although it is often featured by itself on violin recitals. The title Nigun refers to an especially soulful, passionate type of Chasidic melody. Like Schelomo, the piece presents Bloch in his most unrestrained, throbbingly fervent vein, and this is captured especially well on the viola. This selection was recorded in 2008, and is played on a larger instrument than the one used on the rest of the disc, further enhancing the vocal quality of the performance.

Picks of the Year: 2007

Once again I’ve been unable to come up with five recent CDs that meet my criteria of great, little-known 20th-/21st-century music, definitively performed and expertly recorded. However, I hasten to emphasize that I do not attribute this to any diminution in quality or quantity of new releases, but, rather, to my own involvement in a variety of musical activities that have limited my ability to stay abreast of all the recent recordings—of which, I know, there are many—within my area of repertoire interest. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Quintet No. 2 derive from approximately opposite ends of his career, more than 40 years apart. The Quartet No. 1 is an expansive, passionate post-romantic work nearly an hour in duration. This Laurel release captures what is without question the work’s best modern performance to be recorded. Originally released on LP in 1982, this is its long-awaited first appearance on CD (reviewed in 30:5). It is coupled with an equally fine performance of the Piano Quintet No. 2, Bloch’s last major work—a terse, energetic statement no less passionate and intense than the early quartet. This reissue replaces Laurel’s previous CD release of that work, which is now out of print.

And then we have the first-ever complete commercial recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece, the opera Merry Mount (reviewed in this issue). (Naxos did release a documentary recording of the opera’s 1934 world premiere by the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett and Göta Ljunberg [not Gladys Swarthout, as I incorrectly stated in my review] in the leading roles. But that recording is not allowed to be sold in the United States, for copyright reasons, and the sound quality is barely listenable.) Those listeners who love the familiar orchestral suite from the opera, along with Hanson’s other popular favorites, are sure to find the complete work to be a treat. And this Seattle performance, which took place in 1996, in honor of Hanson’s centennial, represents the work handsomely, and is the natural capstone of Gerard Schwarz’s valuable, comprehensive survey of the composer’s orchestral music.

And then there is one more recent release to mention, but this is one in which my own involvement as producer prevents me from presuming any real objectivity: Artek AR-0036, which comprises the first-ever performance/recording of Nicolas Flagello’s 1956 Violin Concerto, played brilliantly by soloist Elmar Oliveira. I believe that this work warrants consideration alongside the likes of the Barber Concerto, the Bernstein Serenade, and, perhaps, the Korngold Concerto. It is accompanied by seething, brooding orchestral interludes from two of Flagello’s operas, and orchestrated versions of six passionate songs, sung beautifully by Susan Gonzalez. The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams, an excellent conductor with a sympathetic understanding of American neo-romanticism. In their reviews (in the previous issue) two of my colleagues expressed some reservations that are not unjustified, but I believe that those listeners who have enjoyed previous Flagello recordings will be comparably pleased with this one.

BLOCH String Quartet No. 1. Piano Quintet No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet/Karp • LAUREL 820

HANSON Merry Mount • Soloists/Schwarz/Seattle SO/Ch • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs)

BLOCH: Piano Quintets: No. 1. String Quartets: No. 5

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1. String Quartets: No. 5 • Pro Arte Quartet; Howard Karp (pn)• LAUREL LR-853 (ADD; 67:01)

In 1991 Laurel released a CD comprising Ernest Bloch’s two piano quintets, performed by pianist Howard Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet (LR-848CD). These were—and continue to be—the finest recorded representations of what are among this composer’s masterpieces. Evidently that initial run sold out. John Gilbert, son of the late founder of Laurel, Herschel Burke Gilbert, has decided to reissue those performances on two separate discs, each quintet coupled with a Bloch work not previously released by them on CD. Several issues back I reviewed LR-820, which paired the Piano Quintet No. 2 with the String Quartet No. 1. The latter—a stupendous performance and recording (see Want List)—had been released on LP in 1982 but had never been reissued on CD. Now Laurel is issuing the Piano Quintet No. 1 with the String Quartet No. 5, which had been recorded in 1989—at the same time as the quintets—but was never released at all. (Herschel Gilbert was notoriously painstaking, and produced these recordings single-handedly, preparing them for release with a deliberateness that many found infuriating. As it happened, he did not live to preside over the release of the Fifth Quartet.) Those cynical consumers ready to cry “rip-off” at the notion of having to duplicate their recordings of the quintets in order to acquire the newly released quartets should be appeased by learning that the Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 are too long to fit on one compact disc.

The Quartet No. 5 was one of Bloch’s last works, composed in 1955-56. Although it was premiered by the Griller Quartet, the English ensemble that worked closely with the composer, it was written after the group’s seminal readings of the first four were recorded (currently available on Decca 475 6071). This new Laurel release is only its third recording, as far as I know. The first featured the Fine Arts Quartet in an excellent performance recorded shortly after the work was composed. That one was released initially on a Concert-Disc LP, then reissued by Everest, also on LP. The second was the Portland Quartet’s sadly inadequate traversal of all five quartets, released by Arabesque originally on LP in 1983, and reissued on CD soon after. With this release, Laurel now offers all five quartets in splendid performances by the Pro Arte Quartet.

Bloch’s late works reveal the same grim, intense persona found in his earlier works. But they also exhibit a concentration and distillation of rhetoric, with angular motifs and complex formal designs that offer little to gratify or engage the listener on initial acquaintance, although they do reward close, attentive listening. Like the Fourth Quartet, the Fifth is consistently severe in tone, with the slight exception of the scherzo, whose discrete sections and contrasting material make it somewhat easier to follow. A little more than half an hour in duration, the work comprises four movements, of which the first two and the last two are connected, further complicating the task of grasping it aurally. There is a strong overall sense of tonal dynamic tendencies, although much of the thematic material is in itself atonal. The first movement, which introduces some seven different motifs, is subdivided into three sections—two Grave sections flanking a central Allegro. However, the Allegro itself comprises three sections, of which the central one is slow and similar to the large outer sections of the movement. The overall character of the movement is austere, somber, and introspective. The vigorous Allegro material is somewhat neo-Baroque in phraseology, along the lines of the Concerto Grosso No. 2. The subdued ending of the first movement elides with the slow second movement. Nocturnal in character, and also quite severe, with gnarled, chromatic motifs, it makes a rather drab, colorless impression, with little expressive contour. The energetic scherzo that follows offers the quartet’s strongest point of contrast. The trio section introduces an ironic note with what sounds like a Yiddish dance fragment. The final movement opens with a grandiloquent sequence of triads—an unusual effect for Bloch. Though it is marked Allegro deciso, the vigor of the opening soon abates, as motifs heard earlier in the work are reviewed, leading to a peaceful, quiescent ending. Bloch’s daughter Suzanne, to whom the quartet was dedicated, commented that not until she watched her father die three years later did she realize that the ending of the Fifth Quartet was a musical anticipation of that moment.

The Piano Quintet No. 1 dates from 1923, during the fertile period when Bloch served as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and also composed some of his greatest works. To me this Quintet, the Violin Sonata No. 1, and the String Quartet No. 2 are his greatest masterpieces. I’ve commented so often and at such length about the Quintet No. 1 that I’ll simply say, in summary, that the work picks up stylistically and structurally where such predecessors as Franck’s F minor Quintet and Chausson’s Piano Quartet leave off, imbuing that basic prototype with Bloch’s distinctive, extravagantly tortured vision of life. (I refer those who wish further elaboration to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.) As with all the composer’s chamber music masterpieces, this work must be played with tremendous physical power and emotional commitment, without which it just sounds whiny. Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet bring these qualities to bear, along with razor-sharp precision, more fully than any other performance I know, although the Aura Quartet of Switzerland, with pianist Hans Joerg Fink (Musiques Suisses MGB CD 6203), who offer both quintets on a single disc, provide a worthy alternative.

BLOCH: String Quartets: No. 1. Piano Quintets: No. 2

BLOCH String Quartets: No. 1. Piano Quintets: No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet; Howard Karp (pn) • LAUREL LR-820 (76:48)

This is a reissue that will be of considerable import to those who are interested in the major chamber works of Ernest Bloch. As I have commented extensively on both these works and these performances in the past, I will try to be brief here, and refer those who wish more detailed comments to earlier issues of Fanfare, to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com, or to my book (see Web site for details), which has an entire chapter devoted to Bloch’s life and works. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 was begun in Geneva, and completed in New York, bridging the period of the composer’s immigration to this country in 1916. It was composed immediately after Schelomo. The First Quartet is a powerful, visionary work, conceived on a grand scale, and is nearly an hour in duration. It represents an expansive treatment of classical form, as later developed by Cesar Franck, and still later by Eugène Ysaye, further shaped by Bloch’s own ferocious, passionate musical personality. There have been few recordings of this work over the years, and fewer still that are able to meet its emotional and technical requirements. In 1982 Laurel released a stupendous performance of the work on LP, played by the Pro Arte Quartet, the first of several extraordinary recordings featuring this ensemble in Bloch’s chamber music. Most of these recordings have made their way onto compact disc, but only now is this recording of the First Quartet thus available. However, last year Decca issued on CD the historic 1954 readings of the first four quartets (the Fifth hadn’t yet been written) by the Griller Quartet, the highly esteemed English ensemble that worked closely with Bloch, and gave the premieres of Quartets Nos. 3, 4, and 5. Their recordings were made under his direct supervision. These are brilliant, intensely committed performances and Decca’s reissue offers the opportunity to acquire those four works at quite a reasonable price. Then why would one be interested in Laurel’s reissue now? The chief reason would be that the latter offers full, rich ADD sound quality. Bloch’s Quartet No. 1 is post-romantic in style and symphonic in scale, and benefits greatly from the sonic breadth thus afforded. Decca’s re-mastering is fine, but the original mid 1950s sound is tightly cramped and a little strident.

The Piano Quintet No. 2 makes for a fascinating companion piece, as it is the composer’s last major work, composed in 1957, more than 40 years after the First Quartet. Bloch’s Weltanschauung—with its savagery, passion, and sober introspection—remains largely unchanged, but the means of realizing it are now much tighter and less rhetorical. When the reading at hand first appeared on LP in 1984, it was the work’s first recording, and set an astoundingly high standard. It was then reissued on CD in 1991 with an equally powerful performance of the Quintet No. 1. Heard today these performances have not lost their primacy, although a few other fine recordings of the Piano Quintets have appeared in the interim.

I should add that within the year Laurel is planning to reissue the aforementioned reading of the Piano Quintet No. 1, coupled with the Pro Arte Quartet’s rendition of the String Quartet No. 5—a recording that has not been previously issued. That is a release I eagerly await, as no recording of Bloch’s final quartet has yet done justice to the work.

BLOCH: Helvetia. Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Suite Hébraïque

BLOCH Helvetia. Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Suite Hébraïque • Gérard Caussé (va); Lior Shambadal, cond; L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande • CASCAVELLE RSR-6170 (72:19)

It was just a year ago that I reviewed what I described as the first recording ever of Bloch’s HelvetiaThe Land of Mountains and Its People, the last major work by this composer to find its way onto recording, presented by David Amos and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Kleos KL5134). In that review I referred to the fact that there was another recent recording floating around, but I could not gain access to it until now. It so happens that this Swiss recording actually predated the Kleos release by a year or two (not that this is of any particular importance).

Helvetia is the last (1929) of the three homages that Bloch composed to honor the three nations with which he identified himself: Switzerland, the land of his birth; America, his adopted homeland; and Israel, a metaphorical nation at the time (1916), representative of his people. Like America: An Epic Rhapsody, Helvetia is a warmly affectionate work, at times verging on the sentimental. Though not one of his masterpieces, it is nevertheless the work of a supreme master, and, as such, displays impeccable craftsmanship, as well as an eloquence that at times is almost magical. There are lovely moments here that no admirer of Bloch’s work would want to miss. Those listeners who can appreciate America are similarly likely to enjoy Helvetia.

Amos’s performance of Helvetia is excellent, but so is Israeli conductor Shambadal’s—I couldn’t begin to choose between them. What clearly distinguishes the two recordings, however, are the very different programs involved. The Kleos release groups the Bloch with two fascinating piano concertos by the largely-forgotten composer-pianist Isidor Achron (best known as one of Jascha Heifetz’s accompanists), and an unusual work by Lazar Saminsky. Those who are intrigued by these hitherto obscure works will want the Kleos disc.

But the Cascavelle disc is excellent also, and listeners to whom this program appeals will not be disappointed either. The early (1919-20) Suite for Viola and Orchestra is one of Bloch’s more familiar works, although it is one that I find to be somewhat over-extended. 

ArkivMusic.com lists four other current recordings. Of those I prefer the ASV release, which features violist Yuri Gandelsman, with an Israeli pick-up orchestra conducted by Dalia Atlas. But I would place the performance at hand, with soloist Gérard Caussé, at a comparable level. The latter has perhaps a greater fluency and brilliance, while Gandelsman is a bit fuller and heavier in approach. The ASV recording is somewhat more vivid and transparent.

Suite Hébraïque is a less ambitious, more relaxed piece, composed during the early 1950s. There appear to be nine recordings of the work currently available, some featuring viola, some violin; some with piano, some with orchestra. I haven’t heard them all, but feel confident that this one is at least as good as any.

In summary, program considerations relative to one’s own collection are likely to determine one’s interest in this recent release. An additional feature worthy of mention is the liner note, written by Joseph Lewinski, author of the recent four-volume French-language study of the composer’s life and works.

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2 • Aura Qt; Hans Joerg Fink (pn) • MUSIQUES SUISSES MGB CD 6203 (51:44)

Although his name is well-known, Ernest Bloch’s compositional reputation rests chiefly on three or four works: Schelomo, Concerto Grosso No. 1, the Sacred Service, and perhaps Baal Shem—music that, though including some of his finest pieces, tends to skew his relevance toward the Jewish portion of the listening public, and doesn’t begin to represent the universal depth and breadth of his utterance. Most of those who are familiar with his entire output, which includes five symphonies, a major operatic work, five string quartets, and numerous other chamber works comparable in stature to those of Brahms, acknowledge him as one of the 20th century’s greatest masters. Therefore, to assert that Bloch’s two piano quintets are unjustly neglected is rather an understatement. These two works, written more than 30 years apart (1923, 1957) are excellent examples of Bloch’s abstract compositional prowess, as represented by two major works from his two most prolific periods: his early 40s, when he served as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and his late 70s, when he was living and working in self-imposed isolation in Oregon. The first quintet reveals Bloch’s transformation of the Franck/Ysaye aesthetic ethos into an intense cauldron of white-hot emotional vehemence, while the second reveals the composer’s successful distillation of this approach into something less extravagantly rhetorical, but no less intense emotionally.

I have written extensively about these works in the past; I therefore refer readers who seek greater detail to Fanfare 15:2, or to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com. It suffices here to state simply that the two piano quintets are among Bloch’s greatest works.

During the 1980s, Laurel, the California-based company founded by the late Herschel Burke Gilbert, and currently managed by his son John, released a series of superb performances of many of Bloch’s major chamber works. A significant contributor to many of these benchmark performances was the Pro Arte Quartet, which presented this music with both great technical power and blazing conviction. Their performances clearly surpassed the efforts of all other contenders. (It is therefore most regrettable that my Fanfare colleagues consistently fail to mention these recordings, which may be found and purchased via www.laurelrecord.com, in their recent discussions of various recordings of these works.) 

Now, with the release on Musiques Suisses of the Aura Quartet’s performances of the two piano quintets, featuring Swiss pianist Jans Joerg Fink, there are recorded performances that rival the Pro Arte readings. The Aura Quartet boasts a varied personnel, with members from Australia, Spain, and Switzerland, who join Fink in promoting neglected but worthy examples of the piano quintet repertoire. Their readings of these two works bristle with a sizzling dynamism. As tightly focused as the Pro Arte renditions may be, the Aura are a bit more incisive and more meticulously articulated. On the other hand, the Pro Arte performances with pianist Howard Karp are somewhat more massively aggressive and forceful, even ferocious. Also, the Laurel CD includes as a bonus Bloch’s Suite No. 1 for cello solo in a fine performance by Parry Karp.

What is important is that listeners who enjoy the chamber music of, say, Shostakovich and Bartók, but are unfamiliar with that of Bloch take steps to remedy that situation. Either the Musiques Suisses or Laurel recordings will help them accomplish this most satisfactorily.

BLOCH Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and its People. I. ACHRON Piano Concertos No. 1; No. 2. SAMINSKY The Vow: Rhapsodic Variations on a Dual Theme

BLOCH Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and its PeopleI. ACHRON Piano Concertos No. 1; No. 2. SAMINSKY The Vow: Rhapsodic Variations on a Dual Theme • David Amos, cond; Royal Scottish Nat O; Barry Goldsmith (pn) • KLEOS KL5134 (73:42)

This recent release offers some most unusual programming, and warrants the attention of those listeners who have been following Naxos’ Milken Archive project and are generally interested in Jewish-American composers whose reputations have fallen by the wayside. Each of the four works presented here was composed during the first half of the 20th century, and each composer was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. From a purely musical standpoint, the most significant work is the first commercial recording of Ernest Bloch’s homage to his native country: Helvetia—The Land of Mountains and Its People. But from a historical standpoint, the works by Isidor Achron (1892-1948) and Lazar Saminsky (1882-1959)—two utterly obscure figures today, but fairly prominent some 60 years ago—hold considerable fascination of their own.

Another example of the type of coincidence I have observed so many times that it has become virtually predictable, this initial release of Bloch’s Helvetia—the last of his major works to appear on recording—was accompanied by the near-simultaneous release of a Swiss recording of the piece by the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Lior Shambadal, on the Cascavelle label (RSR6170, coupled with Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra, and Suite Hébraïque). However, after requesting a review copy of that recording and waiting in vain for months, I decided to give up and not delay this review any longer.

Helvetia, the last of Bloch’s tributes to his tri-partite heritage, was completed in 1929, following the Israel Symphony (1916) and America: An Epic Rhapsody(1926). Though less than half as long as its predecessor, it shares much in common with that work: Like America, it was the winner of a significant composition award, this one sponsored by RCA Victor; it is also similarly affectionate and heartfelt, with much that is beautifully moving, as well as passages that cross the line into banal exultation. (Other moments are surprisingly Mahlerian.) The work falls into five connected sections or “frescoes,” each associated with an aspect of Swiss history or culture, or with its natural beauty. Bloch left rather elaborate program notes that make its references abundantly clear. Though it is not a masterpiece, one can safely predict that Helvetia will appeal to those listeners who appreciate the virtues of America. Its utter neglect is hard to understand—one would expect that at least in Switzerland itself it would be held in some esteem. Is there a better work that celebrates this country?

Isidor Achron was the slightly lesser-known younger brother of Joseph Achron, a violinist and composer of Jewish-oriented music, largely remembered today through the championing of some of his works by Jascha Heifetz. Those familiar with Isidor’s name probably recall him as Heifetz’s accompanist from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s. But during his heyday he was also renowned as a piano soloist and composer of some distinction. Of Polish-Russian background, Isidor Achron studied composition with Anatol Liadov, before coming to the United States in 1922. The concertos offered here date from 1937 and 1942; both were introduced by the composer, under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli, the first with the New York Philharmonic.

Achron’s Concerto No. 1 is a 17-minute work cast in a single movement. I must admit to finding its stylistic and aesthetic identity rather fascinating: While I was listening to it, the associations that occurred to me included the music of Scriabin, of Paul Creston, and of Gershwin minus the latter’s tunefulness. Achron seemed to have a fascination with the whole-tone scale, and with the augmented-eleventh chord derived from it (hence the Creston association), which enabled him to avoid strong tonal centers while retaining an opulently romantic sound overall. On the whole, one might place the work in the general stylistic neighborhood of Addinsell’s once-popular Warsaw Concerto, although perhaps its fatal weakness is the absence of memorable thematic ideas.
The Concerto No. 2 is a more ambitious affair, falling into the conventional three-movement design, and lasting some 24 minutes. Its overall style is essentially the same as its predecessor’s, although the elaborate first movement does boast a big, romantic theme, a la Rachmaninoff. Again the whole-tone scale plays an important fundamental role, which eventually results in a rather vague expressive character, as is typical with the use of scales and modes whose symmetrical arrangement of intervals prevents the emergence of a clear tonic. Both concertos are filled with the conventional virtuoso fireworks customary for the genre.

The work I found least interesting was Lazar Saminsky’s The Vow—Rhapsodic Variations on a Dual Theme. Born in Ukraine, Saminsky, a virtual contemporary of Bloch, studied both mathematics and philosophy in Russia, in addition to musical studies with Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Settling in New York in 1920, he was active as a musicologist and conductor, as well as a widely-performed composer of works in all standard genres. Apparently he worked on The Vow on and off from 1917 until 1943, although he never got around to orchestrating it. The program notes—disappointingly skimpy for both Achron and Saminsky—offer no explanation for the work’s title. Evidently, pianist Goldsmith discovered the two-piano score in manuscript, and requested an orchestration from San Diego composer and arranger Abelardo Flores, who provided a fine one. The set of variations on two Jewish-oriented themes resembles the music of Bloch, not surprisingly. However, the comparison is not advantageous to Saminsky, whose work, though not without some attractively evocative moments, is rather colorless, lacking the strong personality and fervent intensity of his better-known contemporary. Nevertheless, I am glad to have made the acquaintance of some actual music by a man whose name I have encountered often while poring over program notes from the second quarter of the 20th century.

Each work on the disc is performed with sympathetic conviction and superb artistry. Barry Goldsmith is an accomplished virtuoso with considerable technique and sensitivity. David Amos, an indefatigable musical adventurer, has built a substantial reputation during the past 25 years for his many valuable premiere recordings of distinguished but little-known works of the 20th century. He continues to increase his impressive discography with these fascinating performances. One caveat to the prospective purchaser: The CD tray-card indicates a total timing of 50:31, which drastically short-changes the production, as indicated by the correct timing in the headnote above.

Picks of the Year: 2005

As far as I can recall, this is the first year that I actually had difficulty narrowing down my list of most significant new releases to five. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I am certainly glad that the much-observed and –discussed dwindling of the audience for classical music has not yet resulted in a corresponding tapering off of new releases featuring unusual repertoire. 

One most welcome entry is the Chandos recording (reviewed in 28:5) of Samuel Barber’s gorgeous opera Vanessa. This recent release appeared on the heels of a perfectly adequate Naxos recording of the same work. Hopefully, the latter, budget-priced, will draw new listeners to the opera, while the more expensive Chandos release provides an extraordinary performance, brilliantly recorded, to satisfy already-convinced enthusiasts who want an alternative to the almost-50-year-old Metropolitan Opera version.

The Griller Quartet’s fervently committed 1954 recordings of the first four of Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets (reviewed [most likely] in 29:1) have long been unavailable, and have achieved something like “legendary” status. Now re-issued on a modestly-priced two-disc set of CDs, these performances will presumably draw new listeners to these great works, still barely known to either the listening audience or the academic musicological world. The Griller performances offer persuasive evidence that Bloch’s quartets are comparable in stature to those of Bartók and Shostakovich. Indeed, the Quartet No. 2 is probably Bloch’s greatest work.

On the other hand, Bloch enthusiasts may want to pursue the first recording available in the United States of the rarely heard orchestral rhapsody Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and Its People (Kleos KL5134), performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the direction of David Amos. Further enhancing the value of this recording is the presence of two really obscure, but intriguing piano concertos by Isidor Achron, lesser-known younger brother of Joseph (whose music isn’t that well known either, except to violin specialists). 

Alan Hovhaness died in 2000, at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of more than 500 works—a legacy that even the composer’s most fervent admirers will concede is “uneven” at best. Pianist Martin Berkofsky is a most effective protagonist for this music, and for his new Black Box release has selected some of Hovhaness’s most unequivocal masterpieces, which he performs—sometimes enlisting the additional participation of other pianists—with a deep understanding of the aesthetic premises underlying these works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of the composer.

Recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music, Paul Moravec is the first such winner in the last few years whose selection seems warranted. Tempest Fantasy, the prize-winning work, is included on this brilliantly performed Arabesque CD (reviewed in 28:5), along with several other equally-rewarding pieces. Moravec’s is a compositional voice to follow: unmistakable for that of any other composer, yet clear and straightforward enough to be readily enjoyed.

The music and reputation of Vincent Persichetti, one of the supreme masters among American composers, have been in something of a hibernation since his death in 1987. Suddenly a spate of new recordings featuring his works has appeared, and will be discussed at length in a forthcoming issue. Perhaps the most significant of these is Albany’s new release of three symphonies (two of which have never been recorded before) on a two-CD set priced as one. The performances by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony are solid and sympathetic, while the recording is of revelatory clarity. 

Better known than Persichetti’s symphonies are his works for wind ensemble, which are among the cornerstones of the genre. Highly esteemed band director Eugene Corporon presents seven of these works in meticulous performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627; available from www.giamusic.com); this release complements David Amos’s overlapping survey of Persichetti’s works for band featuring the winds of the London Symphony Orchestra, to be reissued imminently on Naxos American Classics.



BARBER Vanessa • Soloists/Slatkin/BBC SO/Ch • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2)

BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4 • Griller St Qt • DECCA 475 6071

HOVHANESS Lousadzak. Two-Piano Concerto. Mihr. Vijag et al. • Berkofsky/Krimets/Globalis SO • BLACK BOX BBM1103

MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo • Krakauer/Trio Solisti • ARABESQUE Z6791

PERSICHETTI Symphonies: Nos. 3, 4, 7 • Miller/Albany SO • ALBANY TROY771/72