BLOCH: Symphony In C# Minor. Schelomo. Israel Symphony. Concerto Symphonique for Piano and Orchestra. Sacred Service. SCHUMANN: Concerto in A Minor for Cello and Orchestra, op. 129.

by Walter Simmons



BLOCH: Symphony In C# Minor. Stephen Gunzenhauser conducting the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. MARCO POLO 8.223103 [DDD]. 48:32. Produced by Guenter Appenheimer. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

BLOCH: Schelomo. SCHUMANN: Concerto in A Minor for Cello and Orchestra, op. 129. Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Leonard Bernstein conducting l’Orchestre National de France. EMI ANGEL CDC7 49307 2 [ADD]; 48:04. Produced by John Mordler.

BLOCH: Israel Symphony. Concerto Symphonique for Piano and Orchestra. Maurice Abravanel conducting. Blanche Christenson, Jean Basinger Fraenkel, sopranos, Christina Politis, Diane Heder, altos; Don Watts. bass; Utah Symphony Orchestra. Marjorie Mitchell, piano, Vladimir Golschmann conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. VANGUARD VCD-72031 [ADD/AAD]; 68:00. Produced by Seymour Solomon.

BLOCH: Sacred Service Geoffrey Simon conducting; Louis Berkman, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra; Zemel Choir et al. CHANDOS CHAN-8418 [ADD]; 50:49. Produced by Robert Matthew Walker. (Distributed by Koch Import Service.)

I have noted in previous reviews the considerable recording activity involving the music of Ernest Bloch since his centennial in 1980. For obvious economic reasons, most of these recordings have addressed Bloch’s all-important chamber music. This review documents the appearance on CD of a number of major large-scale orchestral works. Indeed, three of these new releases, though reissues, are essential items, while the other is a new recording of a fascinating curiosity. Heard in succession, these works argue Bloch’s stature as comparable to that of Bartok and Stravinsky. Though he exerted less influence on other composers than they, the coherence and unity of his output, the spiritual depth of his search, the intensity and consistency of his commitment, and the individuality and appropriateness of his language proclaim him no less significant a figure than his two contemporaries.

The curiosity of a generation of music lovers was satisfied in 1985 when the Ernest Bloch Society issued a private recording of the rarely performed Symphony in C# Minor of 1901, the first of the composer’s five unnumbered symphonies. This work, the circumstances surrounding its composition, and its first recorded performance were discussed at length in Fanfare 9:3 (pp. 120-21). That recording documented a strenuous effort undertaken by a non-professional orchestra. Perhaps accomplishing one of its purposes, it probably served as stimulus for the release — only three years later — of this vastly superior professional performance. Vastly superior, but with plenty of room left for further refinement of orchestral execution, I might add.

The Symphony in C# Minor holds a place in Bloch’s output comparable to that held by Kossuth in Bartok’s and the Symphony in Eb in Stravinsky’s; that is, these are youthful works that reveal little of the individuality in both language and substance that was soon to characterize the works of each composer’s maturity. Such works are fascinating because they reveal, with little camouflage, the formative stylistic influences and aesthetic standards operating on the composers as their identities were being formed, as well as the extent of their 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 works are retained and developed by the composers as they mature. Bloch’s early symphony addresses with great seriousness and considerable aspiration a favorite romantic theme and one that permeated his later work — the victory of faith and hope over a variety of metaphysical doubts and struggles. Its execution follows the conventional rhetoric of Germanic late-romanticism, without more than a hint of the highly idiosyncratic language Bloch was to develop over the next few years. This hint is found only in the rather Brucknerian scherzo — probably the symphony’s most effective movement. Diligently developed and structured, the work’s chief weaknesses are its utter predictability at every turn and its inflation, over the course of many repetitions, of the rather mawkish theme of the second movement into a grotesquely bombastic hymn of triumph.

By 1916, the year of his immigration to the United States, Bloch had begun to undertake an ambitious series of works through which he endeavored to express the character of the Jewish soul. It was through this bold, unprecedented undertaking that Bloch’s own individual musical language was forged, although — as is often overlooked — the actual proportion of his output devoted to works of Jewish inspiration is quite small (about 1/6). Both Schelomo and the Israel Symphony (Bloch’s second symphony) were completed that year — the last works before his immigration.

Schelomo is, of course, the piece with which Bloch is most closely identified among general listeners, a brooding rhapsody in which the results of deep, soulful introspection are proclaimed with passionate intensity. Extravagantly asserting itself without a trace of restraint, a work like this can easily sound strained and overstated unless played with comparable conviction, of which few performers are capable. However, Rostropovich and Bernstein join in mustering the requisite commitment, offering the most powerful and persuasive performance I have ever heard on records. Originally released in 1977 this is a vivid, closely miked recording whose strength is undiminished on CD.

This release does, unfortunately, suffer from two deficiencies: One concerns a full-page photograph that appears in the program notes; ostensibly of Bloch, it is not. The other is the companion piece — Schumann’s cello concerto, which, after presenting its rather promising thematic material, meanders aimlessly to the point of excruciating boredom.

The Israel Symphony snares much in common with Schelomo, most obviously and significantly, its explicitly Jewish frame of reference and its richly orchestrated, emotionally effusive rhetoric. Indeed, it is fair to say that no one who loves Schelomo can fail to be deeply moved by this work, which proceeds with unflagging inspiration from its very opening until the entrance of the soloists for a concluding prayer whose serenity is a little too easily won after the extended brooding and turbulence that precedes it. The work continues for nearly half an hour without a break, unfolding in broad cinematic gestures that anticipate the sound of a Rosza score for a biblical epic, while maintaining a consistently noble stance throughout. In view of the symphony’s overtly appealing qualities, it is difficult to attribute its relative neglect to anything but the impracticality of calling for five vocal soloists who perform only the final few minutes. The performance. which is generally good. dates from the late 1960s; sound quality is excellent on this reissue.

Also on the Vanguard CD is the 1948 Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra. the most expansive work of Bloch’s later, Oregon years. Unlike many of the works from this period, which are remarkable for their classical concision. the concerto is a sprawling, highly moody and dramatic work in the mainstream of Bloch’s mature, non-sectarian. hyper-romantic vein, with all the strengths and weaknesses this indicates: Its emotional tone is by t urns portentous, defiant, and grotesquely sardonic, suggesting a commentary on life’s most troubling concerns — concerns that seemed to haunt the composer throughout his life. Bloch was a master at evoking such moods and feelings with extraordinary eloquence, through his own  integration of most of the major currents of early twentieth-century syntax — especially with regard to the subtle control of tonality and dissonance — into a personal and highly versatile expressionism. On the other hand, the concerto’s formal structure is rhapsodic and unhurried, while the composer frequently resorts to the facile device of increasing tension through sequences in rising minor thirds. The piano functions more as a commentator than as a protagonist, in the conventional romantic sense. This means that, though the work has its heroic aspects. the piano does not play that particular role, which may account for its notable infrequency of performance.

Though this (monaural) recording of the Concerto Symphonique is only a few years older than that of the companion piece. its sound suggests an earlier era; moreover, the performance is no more than serviceable. Nevertheless, the CD reissue represents a considerable improvement over the original LP; and, with two major works of Bloch that are obscure enough to have perhaps eluded the composer’s younger or less assiduous admirers, in a fresh presentation with excellent. newly written notes by the distinguished critic Heuwell Tircuit, this is a very valuable release.

The Sacred Service, composed during the early 1930s, is regarded by many as Bloch’s greatest work and the apex of Jewish liturgical music. Yet the composer’s intention was to create a work capable of inspiring people of all backgrounds toward a profound spiritual experience. To this end Bloch combined haunting passages of modal counterpoint into an opulent orchestral texture blazing with exotic color. Whether or not it is his greatest work, it certainly is one of his most important — a work of extraordinary depth and beauty capable of moving audiences of all faiths, and the definitive spiritual statement of a composer whose work was permeated by a sense of humanitarian and ethical idealism.

When this recording was originally issued on LP around 1980, 1 compared it with all previous versions of the work (see Fanfare 4:3. p. 86), finding it to be superior with regard to both performance and sound. As far as 1 know, no new recordings have appeared since then, and I remain enthusiastic about this Chandos release, especially in its CD reissue.

The conclusion of this review might be an appropriate opportunity to note several Bloch orchestral works, of considerable importance for one reason or another, that still await first recordings. There is the pair of tone poems. Hiver/Printemps, composed in 1905. that would no doubt illuminate the stylistic development that took place between the derivative and immature Symphony in C# Minor and the far more distinctive Macbeth, Bloch’s 1909 opera. There are the Evocations from 1937, a suite of three symphonic pictures in the composer’s most exotic, richly-colored vein. This is a work whose neglect is truly inexplicable. Then there is the Symphony in Eb, Bloch’s last symphony — a work of energetic neoclassicism composed when he was seventy-five. And finally, the Two Last Poems for flute and orchestra, written during the composer’s final year. These pieces are all essential for developing a fuller understanding of one of the major compositional figures of the twentieth century.