BLOCH: Schelomo; Voice in the Wilderness.

by Walter Simmons



BLOCH: Schelomo; Voice in the Wilderness. Janos Starker, cello; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. LONDON ENTERPRISE 414 166-1.

For years many admirers of the music of Bloch have been protesting the over-exposure of Schelomo at the expense of other works that are more representative of the true scope of his mature accomplishments. It is thus interesting to note that, for whatever reason, there are more recordings listed  in the current Schwann of his Sonata No. 1 for Violin and piano — certainly one of Bloch’s greatest works — than of .Schelomo. Now London has released this 1970 recording on its Enterprise reissue series, which pairs Schelomo, with the only currently available recording of Bloch’s other major work for cello and orchestra,Voice in. the Wilderness.

Schelomo, composed in 1915, shortly before Bloch arrived in this country, is representative of the composer in his most rhapsodic, extravagantly colored, and passionately Jewish vein. Its blazing orchestration and grand rhetorical abandon have much appeal, although its loose, sprawling, discursive structure limits its durability. On one hand, Schelomo sense is linked to the mainstream of Bloch’s output by its sense of philosophical idealism always threatened by pessimism and disillusionment, and by its deeply humanistic spirituality that bursts forth with unrestrained fervor. On the other hand, there is much about its mode of expression that is akin to the surface exoticism of a work like Scheherezade, for example (I mean the one by Rimsky-Korsakov), causing one to regard it at a somewhat lower level of musical significance.

The performance offered here is a fine one, yielding to the music’s demand for intense emotional commitment. Even Starker, who often projects a diffident persona, fully embraces the spirit of the work. The Israel Philharmonic fulfills its role capably, except or a rather prominent trumpet flub at the second major climax, which somehow managed to escape uncorrected. In comparing performances, one observes that all the recordings of Schelomo listed in the current domestic catalogue have distinct virtues. The best performance quaperformance is probably the one featuring Rostropovitch, with the French National Radio Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Angel S-37256), but it is also the most expensive and features the least interesting pairing (the Schumann Cello Concerto). Varga with the Westphalian Symphony under Landau (Turnabout 34622) is quite good and offers the only available recording of theViola Suite in its far superior orchestral version. Nelsova’s performance with the Utah Symphony under Abravanel Vanguard C-10007) is also more than adequate, and is paired with the Israel Symphony, a work composed about the same time as Schelomo — rather similar in style, with the same sense of intensely visceral immediacy. Listeners who appreciate the qualities found in Schelomo should not overlook the Israel Symphony.

The companion work on this new reissue, Voice in the Wilderness, is often viewed as a sequel to Schelomo, from the vantage point of two decades later. The work consists of six orchestral episodes in Bloch’s mature orchestral language–less ethnically specific, more concentrated rhetorically, but no less passionately expressive. Each episode is followed by a commentary by the cello that ruminates and elaborates upon the ideas expressed by the orchestra. The tutti episodes are brilliant, varied, and display Bloch’s almost alchemical mastery of the orchestra. However, the commentaries by the cello are rather redundant and anticlimactic, weakening the overall sense of formal coherence. In 1940 Bloch arranged five of the six orchestral episodes for piano solo, with the title Visions and Prophecies.The effectiveness of this version is diminished by Bloch’s infelicitous solo piano writing; but the ideal realization of this music would be, in my opinion, an orchestral version of Visions and Prophecies, which would result in a .compact orchestral suite of about 12 minutes. I wonder whether such an idea has ever occurred to anyone.

This performance of Voice in the Wilderness is somewhat less solid than the rendition of Schelomo presented here orchestra sounds muddy and Starker cuts a less striking profile. Sound quality in both works is quite brilliant, I might add — much improved from the original issue of this recording, especially with regard to dynamic range.