by Walter Simmons
An Ernest Bloch Update
BLOCH: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano. R. STRAUSS: Sonata in E-Flat for Violin and Piano, Op. 18. Elmar Oliveira, violin, Walter Ponce, piano. VOX CUM LAUDE D-VCL 9021 (digital), produced by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz, $10.98.
BLOCH: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano. Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (Poème Mystique). Yukiko Kamei, violin; Irma Vallecillo, piano. LAUREL LR-121, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert, $8.98.
BLOCH: String Quartet No. 1. Pro Arte Quartet. LAUREL LR-120, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert, $8.98 (available from: Laurel Records, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, California 90046).
BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Piano. HINDEMITH Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 25, no. 4. Yizhak Schotten, viola; Katherine Collier, piano. CRI RECORDS SD-450, produced by Carter Harman, $8.95.
BLOCH: Schelomo. WALTON: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Gregor Piatigorsky, cello; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch. RCA GOLD SEAL AGL1-4086, $5.98.
This season has seen the appearance of several fine discs devoted to the music of Ernest Bloch. These, along with other recent recordings that have been discussed in these pages (see especially Fanfare IV:5, pp. 60-61), suggest that musicians have finally begun to look beyond the familiar attractions of Schelomo and the Concerto Grosso No. 1 end delve into Bitch’s challenging and rewarding body of chamber music — especially those landmark works composed between 1915 and 1924, the period represented by these recordings. After the appearance of so many discs that offer nothing beyond the right notes, it is encouraging to note that players are also beginning to comprehend the expressive possibilities of this music and approach it with the emotional commitment that it demands. Most of Bloch’s works from this period — including Schelomo — carry a rather explicit metaphysical program. Using as a point of departure the formal and stylistic parameters inherited from the Franck/Chausson/Debussy tradition in which he developed, Bloch imbued his music with intensely bitter philosophical visions, attempting to depict such dynamics as the destructive forces of mankind, raging against the eternal serenity of nature, the escape from materialism into spiritual contemplation, the futility and vanity of idealism, etc. The use of music as a vehicle for such personal philosophical statements is not as common as one might think, although, interestingly, this trait was shared by Scriabin; literary, dramatic, and historical programs are far more frequently encountered. Of course, such content runs counter to several of today’s artistic taboos: against public confessions, against unrestrained emotional display, as well as against verbalizing musical meaning — especially of a personal nature. Around the turn of the century such uninhibited rhetoric was more acceptable, and Bloch, himself a fervent, passionate fellow, did not hesitate to provide verbal interpretations of his works, or to sanction the attempts of others to try their hands. In some cases, as in Alex Cohen’s notorious commentary on the Violin Sonata No. 1, the results were rather extravagant. (“Bloch saw in this terrible march … a barbaric procession with mounted elephants trampling to death a crowd of prostrate bodies — scapegoats doomed to die in a mass atonement, to lay the ghost of en obsession end propitiate some imagined spirit, in order that life might be safe for the survivors . . . .”) But it is partly a testament to the unequivocal content of Bloch’s music, and to his eloquence in realizing it, that such commentaries strike the listener as wholly accurate, florid though the verbiage may be. The purpose of these interpretations was to help listeners to penetrate the surface of this music, whose brutal ferocity was quite overwhelming at the time. Today many may find the descriptions superfluous. In any case. the music must succeed or fail by dint of its own merits. But with a little indulgence for a tendency toward loose, expansive structures common to early 20th-century romanticism, one will discover some of the most powerful and deeply, moving works of the chamber music literature.
Of particular interest here are 2 important new recordings of the Violin Sonata No. 1, one of Bloch’s greatest works. (For comments on previous recordings of this sonata, see Fanfare III:4, pp. 63-65; V:5, p. 269.) Vox Cum Laude presents a digital recording (also released on cassette) that features Elmer Oliveira, a dazzling younger virtuoso who has demonstrated consummate artistry in a wide variety of styles. Laurel, a small, independent-minded company based in Los Angeles, introduces the young Japanese violinist Yukiko Kamai, a former student, and, later, assistant of Jascha Heifetz (Heifetz, of course, has made definitive recordings of the Bloch sonatas, available now only as part of a 4-record set. RCA ARM4-0947.) In previous performances coincidentally, Oliveira has impressed me with a technical mastery and visceral gusto suggestive of Heifetz. Thus, in listening to this recording, I was a little surprised and disappointed to encounter a detached refinement more akin to the playing, say, of Arthur Grumiaux. But we are not dealing with Saint-Saens’ Rondo Capriccioso here. You do not play the Bloch Sonata No. 1 to show how refined you are. You play this piece because you believe in it, or you leave it alone. Indeed, the playing is superbly patrician: Challenging technical passages are dispensed with an aloof calm; there is not an uncontrolled note, nor an ugly one — and this is very difficult music. But there is ugliness in it that must be conveyed. Oliveira is a bit too tight, too controlled, insufficiently expansive. And, as if to disprove everything that has been said about digital recording, the sound quality on this disc is rather distant and diffuse. I am no advocate of “concert-hall perspective” in recording, especially not for chamber music. In this case, it only compounds the frustrating detachment of the performance. Pianist Walter Ponce provides adequate, reasonably sensitive support, but the piano is miked and balanced in such a way that it sounds muffled, a problem that plagues virtually all recordings of this work.
Kamei, on the other hand, presents a very different type of performance. Though lacking the extraordinary tonal finesse of Oliveira, she seems to dig deeper into the work. Her tone is wiry and a little harsh, but she has full technical command and approaches the sonata with the necessary aggressiveness. The sound quality of this recording is also very different from the Vox: Here the violin ambience is very close — even too close, so that it sounds rather flat and two-dimensional. Then, too, the balance between violin and piano is not right — again the piano is muffled and distant. (If you think I’m being too fussy, listen to the CRI viola disc as an example of ideal string/piano balance.) In summary, let me emphasize that these are 2 very fine performances. While neither achieves perfection, each is a significant addition to the Bloch discography.
To its distinct advantage, this new Laurel release is the first single-disc pairing of the 2 Bloch sonatas since the workmanlike renditions of Rafael Druian and John Simms on Mercury from the mid 1950s. The Violin Sonata No. 2, “Poème Mystique,” was composed in 1924, four years after the Sonata No. 1. It is in one movement, much freer in form than its predecessor. Centered around a beautiful hymn containing both Christian and Jewish elements, the work offers an optimistic spiritual alternative to the pessimism of the First Sonata. While not as tight and concentrated as the earlier work, the “Poème Mystique” is passionate in its idealism, and quite lovely. Kamei and Vallecillo provide an excellent performance, superior to the warmly heartfelt but technically uncertain rendition by Michael Davis and Nelson Harper on Orion.
Laurel has slowly been building a reputation among connoisseurs as one of the most discriminating and imaginative smaller record companies around. Under the uncompromising guidance of Herschel Burke Gilbert, Laurel has tried to fill important gaps in it the recorded repertoire with outstanding recordings of authoritative performances. Although many small companies have tried this sort of thing, few have shown the painstaking concern for musical values that Laurel has demonstrated. Among the projects in progress are Robert Muczynski’s traversal of his substantial piano output, the string quartets of Szymenowski, and, with this initial entry, the 5 string quartets of Ernest Bloch, performed by the Pro Arte Quartet (in residence at the University of Wisconsin). This will be the first complete recording of the quartets, as the London set by the Griller Quartet (LLA-23) was released before the composition of the Fifth Quartet in 1956. On the evidence offered in this initial effort, Bloch enthusiasts have much pleasure ahead, as this recording of the Quartet No. 1 — the first in some 27 years — sets a new standard for the repertoire.
The Quartet No. 1 was completed in 1916, shortly after Schelomo, with which it shares a thematic motif. It is long — nearly an hour — very ambitious, and uncompromisingly serious in tone. The long-lived Bloch was not a terribly precocious composer; although he was 36 when he completed this quartet, it reveals traces of apprenticeship absent, however, from Schelomo. While reflecting the spiritual and philosophical vision of ferocious savagery and bitter despair found in the other works of this period, the quartet also reveals clearly its lineage from the Franco-Belgian tradition mentioned earlier. Not only does its whole-hearted adoption of cyclical procedures suggest its links to the Franck group, but moreso, its approach to quartet sonority ties it closely to the Debussy quartet. It is interesting to observe the Frenchman’s magical timbral blends wrenched and twisted to serve Bloch’s very different and highly individual temperamental needs. Certainly these fascinating connections to its stylistic roots are not to the detriment of the work. However, its excessive length suggests a degree of formal uncertainty; one detects a lack of confidence that one will get the message the first time, so that points are made more fully and explicitly than necessary. There is, nevertheless, much to appreciate in this work, especially in the performance we are offered on this disc. The Pro Arte group emphasizes the quartet’s dramatic intensity to the utmost, bringing to it the necessary physical power and incisiveness. The recording captures a dynamic range that is extraordinarily impressive. This is a milestone recording of an important work, whetting one’s appetite for the next installment: The Second Quartet is probably the greatest of the 5.
Bloch is one of those composers who demonstrated a mastery of orchestral color from his earliest serious efforts — witness the brilliance of Schelomo in this regard. Conversely, his writing for the piano remained consistently awkward throughout his career. Even as fine a work as the 1935 piano sonata, though a powerful piece of music, does not use the resources of the instrument to best effect. Indeed, virtually all of Bloch’s keyboard writing sounds like orchestral music reduced for simulation on piano: Tremolo effects, tightly-voiced dissonances, mysterious murmurs beg the imagination to translate them into their appropriate garb. This is revealed clearly by a comparison between the Suite for Viola and Piano and the orchestrated version that Bloch completed soon afterward. Composed shortly before the First Violin Sonata, the Viola Suite is more loosely structured (as its title suggests), though again its mood is similar to that of the sonata and the First Quartet. More exotically colored than the other 2 works, it has many beautiful moments, conjuring an imagery both mysterious and remote. The opening, in particular, is one of Bloch’s most haunting passages. But as the work unfolds, it seems to lose its focus somewhat, its substance thinning cut disappointingly. Failing to fulfill its obviously ambitious intentions, it occupies a slightly lesser position among Bloch’s works from this period. Violist Yizhak Schotten and pianist Katherine Collier offer as magnificent a performance of the work as I have ever heard. An excellent partnership, they are technically impeccable and sensitive to every nuance. And, as mentioned earlier, the quality of the recording is extremely good, with a superb instrumental balance and sonic ambience. Yet I am afraid I must recommend this work in the orchestral version on Tumabout TV-S 34622 (with an excellent performance of Schemolo on the other side), although Milton Katims’ viola playing is nowhere near as fine as Schotten’s. (Actually, I would love to see Schotten record the orchestral version.) In Bloch’s case, the orchestra reveals an implicit aesthetic dimension that remains dormant in the piano version — something that is riot true for all composers.
There is certainly no paucity d tine recordings of Schemolo As magnificent a work as it is, though, its popularity has discouraged lazy conductors from exploring other equally fine, if less well-known works of Bloch. In fact, with tongue partly in cheek, the Ernest Bloch Society recently urged a moratorium on performances ofSchelomo, so that other works might get some attention. (On that note, I would nominate for resurrection the brilliant 1937 orchestral suite Evocations, the demonic Scherzo Fantasque for piano and orchestra, and the 1903 Symphony in C-sharp minor, which prompted Romain Rolland to write. “I do not know any work in which a richer, more vigorous, more passionate temperament makes itself felt.”) The best recorded performance of Schelomo features Rostropovich, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the French National Radio Orchestra (Angel S-37256). The Piatigorsky performance is excellent, though, with surprisingly good sound quality, considering that it is 25 years old. There are several other fine, moderately priced recordings as well: Laszlo Varga on Turnabout (mentioned above) and Pierre Fournier on DG Privilege (2535201).
To deal briefly with the companion pieces: Yizhak Schotten and Katherine Collier offer a meticulous, well-disciplined performance of Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 25, No. 4, but the piece just bustles around and goes nowhere.
Elmar Oliveira’s pairing for the Bloch Sonata No. 1 is Strauss’ Sonata for Violin and Piano. It is one of the last works in his early, classically oriented style, written in 1887-88, about the time he began the cycle of tone poems. Like most of Strauss’ music from this period, the sonata is composed with great technical skill, but its content is quite superficial. It has its nice moments, and Oliveira and Ponce play it beautifully, but it is an inflated, garrulous work, devoid of all the deeper values so important to Bloch. There are a couple of peripheral annoyances about this new release worth mentioning: For one, the cover design subordinates the music to the performers in a particularly blatant manner. Moreover, Peter Eliot Stone’s liner notes lavish an inordinate amount of analytical commentary on the Strauss, while padding a cursory description of the Bloch with a disorganized array of irrelevant details, although the Strauss is the less important work from every conceivable perspective.
Gregor Piatigorsky recorded the Walton concerto in 1957, 3 days after he introduced the work. It is a mellifluous piece, more memorable thematically than Walton’s concertos for violin or viola. There is a trace of Korngold’s Hollywood style that runs through the attractive, if loosely structured, piece. Piatigorsky and the Boston Symphony do an excellent job with it, making this a worthwhile reissue.