BLOCH: Complete Music for Violin and Piano. Vol 1: Sonata No. 1, suite No. 1 for Solo Violiin, Suite Hebraique, Abodah. Vol II: Sonata No. 2, Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin (“Poeme Mystique”), Baal Shem, Nuit Exotique.

BLOCH: Complete Music for Violin and Piano. Donald Weilerstein, violin; Vivian Homik Weilerstein, piano. ARABESQUE Z6605, Z6606 [DDD]; two separate discs: 55:23, 51:39. Produced by Thomas Mowrey.

Volume I: Sonata No. 1. Suite No. 1 for Solo Violin. Suite Hebraique. Abodah.

Volume II: Sonata No. 2 (“Poème mystique”). Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin. Baal Shem. Nuit Exotique.

After years of inadequate representation on recordings, Bloch’s violin works — especially the two great sonatas — are finally being accorded a level of interpretive respect and comprehension that allows the music’s searing power and intensity to achieve articulate expression. Barely a year after the appearance of the brilliant ADDA CD (581044) featuring the two sonatas in excellent performances by violinist Alexis Galperine and pianist Frédéric Aguessy (see Fanfare 12:3, pp. 131-32), this admirable new set arrives, a milestone in the Bloch discography, purporting to offer all of Bloch’s music for violin and piano. Thus, without wishing to praise one of these fine recordings at the expense of the other, I am sure that admirers of this repertoire will expect some discussion of their relative merits.

The Sonata No.1 is one of Bloch’s masterpieces, a consummate musical embodiment of his original, highly personal metaphysical vision. In this relatively early (1920) work, Bloch transformed the Franco-Belgian late-Romantic language he had absorbed during his formative years within the musical milieu of his mentor Eugene Ysäye into an eloquent vehicle for his own vivid, brutal, and bitterly pessimistic vision of humanity. The only works of comparable stature in the genre are the violin sonatas of Mennin and Shostakovich, both of which came decades later. It is no surprise that the demands of this work — technical, interpretive, and emotional — have overwhelmed most violinists who have attempted it. Thus it is quite remarkable to report that both these recent releases offer performances that can be termed unqualified successes. A comparison of the two renditions finds the Weilersteins a bit more assertive and virile, and Arabesque’s sound marginally closer and fuller, with slightly better balance between the two instruments. Nevertheless I must confess to a slight preference for the Galperine performance, which displays somewhat more refinement, polish, and technical assurance without any sacrifice of intensity — an observation that holds for the pianists as well as the violinists.

Bloch composed the rhapsodic, one-movement Sonata No. 2, “Poeme mystique,” some four years later, as a spiritual antidote to its predecessor. Despite its loose, rather indulgent form, this warm, heartfelt paean to the universal brotherhood of humanity poignantly conveys the other side of Bloch’s ambivalentWeltanschauung. Although the Weilerstein and Galperine performances display essentially the same qualities as those noted above, the Weilersteins have the edge in this work, due to a most egregious wrong note that mars the other version.

A noteworthy feature of the Arabesque set is what I believe to be the first recording ever of Nuit Exotique, an eight-minute example of Bloch’s “night music,” a genre at which he excelled at least as much as his Hungarian contemporary. Many of his contributions, however, have yet to be recorded (e.g.,In the Night and Nirvana — both for piano solo) or have only recently appeared on disc (e.g., Night, “North” from Paysages, and “Dusk” from In the Mountains –– all for string quartet). In such pieces, of which the apotheosis is the second movement of the First Violin Sonata, Bloch evokes haunting, intoxicating moods of exotic mystery somewhat reminiscent in spirit of the late Scriabin sonatas. Nuit Exotique, composed at about the same time as “PoBme mystique,” is a fine example, played superbly by the Weilersteins. 

Yet another composition from the early 1920s is Baal Shem, probably the composer’s best-known violin work, of which the second movement, “Nigun,” is performed even more often on its own. Adopting the same full-bodied, Jewish musical dialect used several years earlier in Schelomo, the impassioned three-movement suite is direct in its appeal, speaking in brood, expansive gestures and straightforward contrasts, intensified by the conventional expressive devices of virtuoso violin music. Baal Shem has been embraced as a vehicle by a number of star performers, but the Weilersteins’ reading owes no apology, projecting the necessary breadth and abandon without compromising taste or accuracy.

Suite Hébraique, composed some three decades after Baal Shem, provides an interesting comparison with the earlier work. Each comprises three explicitly Jewish-flavored movements that add up to a little more than ten minutes, and each inhabits a somewhat more popular, accessible style than do most of Bloch’s works. Yet the later composition displays a degree of emotional detachment not found in Baal Shem; it seems to be depicting or describing, rather than expressing something personal from within. Originally composed for viola and piano, the Suite Hébraique is often heard (and has been recorded at least twice) in an orchestral version made subsequently by the composer.

This raises another point of interest: Bloch’s piano writing is not especially effective; although his many works for strings with piano include several masterpieces, they consistently betray orchestral thinking inadequately realized on the piano. Indeed, many of these works exist in — and are far more successful in — alternative orchestral versions (the Suite for Viola and Piano/Orchestra being one of the better-known examples). I raise this issue because there is a version of Baal Shem with orchestral accompaniment that is hardly ever heard, yet would seemingly be a natural and desirable alternative.

Abodah is a brief, soulful prayer in the manner of Baal Shem, written in 1929 for the seven-year-old Yehudi Menuhin, who has been an advocate of Bloch throughout his life. Indeed, during his last years Bloch wrote two more works for the violinist: the two Suites for Violin Solo. Robert Strassburg, the composer’s biographer, suggests that Bloch’s solo suites — the two for violin plus three for cello and one (uncompleted) for viola — may possibly represent “the ultimate expression of the composer’s genius.” And Suzanne Bloch, the composer’s daughter, for whom 1 have the greatest respect and affection, selects these works as the “culmination of his musical expression.” I cite these comments as a means of atoning for (or at least balancing) my own perhaps blasphemous statement that these solid, well-crafted, Bach-inspired works are rather uninviting, unrewarding, and not particularly interesting compositions. Not that they are terribly dissonant, forbidding, or impenetrable —  just rather academic. Weilerstein plays them here with accuracy and gusto and, as such, they are worthwhile contributions to the set.

In concluding this review, I return to an earlier remark about this set “purporting to offer all of Bloch’s music for violin and piano.” Missing from it is the attractive, four-minute Melodie, recorded by Joshua Epstein and Eugene de Canck on Schwann Musica Mundi VMS-1053 (also discussed in the review cited in the first paragraph above) .