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

by Walter Simmons



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.