BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Piano; Suite Hebraique; Meditation and Processional; Five Sketches in Sepia; In the Night; Suite for Viola and Orchestra. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Flos Campi.

by Walter Simmons

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Piano; Suite Hebraique; Meditation and Processional; Five Sketches in Sepia; In the Night. Simon Rowland-Jones, viola; Niel Immelman, piano ETCETERA KTC-1112 [DDD]; 70:33. Produced by Jonathan Stracey

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Orchestra. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Flos Campi.Jerzy Kosmala, viola; Szymon Kawalla conducting the Cracow Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. CENTAUR CRC-2094 [ADD); 57:05. Produced by Victor Sachse and Jerzy Ensinger

Bloch composed his Suite for Viola and Piano in 1919, shortly before the masterpieces of the early 1920s — the Violin Sonatas and the First Piano Quintet — and the vocabulary it uses shares much in common with them. However, it is somewhat discursive — less concentrated and tightly focused than the three later works, and requires an especially tight, penetrating performance to keep it from sounding like a diffuse jungle of sensuous, oriental exoticism. The work is equally well known in a version with orchestral accompaniment, which is more effective than the piano version. Unfortunately for the consumer, the options of performance and version provided by theme two recent releases are contradictory: that is, Rowland-Jones and Immelman provide a beautifully shaped and incisively executed performance of the piano version, while Kosmal and the Cracow Radio Orchestra offer an unfocused and thoroughly mediocre reading of the orchestral version on the Centaur recording.

Altogether, the Etcetera disc is an intelligently conceived, meticulously executed production, richly and spaciously recorded. The two shorter works with viola —Meditation and Processional (1951 and Suite Hebraique (1950) — are lighter in content and intent and more overtly melodic in their ethnic modality, and will appeal readily to the Bloch enthusiast (the Suite is also often performed by violin).

Creating a pleasing contrast are two works for piano solo. Five Sketches in Sepia(1923) comprise a group of brief mood pictures more fragmentary and wispy than Bloch’s norm. Late Scriabin occasionally comes to mind. These have been available on a number of prior recordings, but In the Night (1922) only recently made its first recorded appearance, on Istvan Kassai’s set of complete Bloch piano music (Marco Polo 8.223288: see Fanfare 14: 1, pp. 187ff). This is one of Bloch’s many lovely, mysterious nocturnes. Pianist Niel Immelman plays both these works with great care and sensitivity.

Flos Campi is one of Vaughan Williams’ most unusual works, the viola blending with the wordless chorus to create a beautiful effect, both sensuous and austere, against the orchestral backdrop. It was composed in 1925 (shortly after the Third Symphony) and is considered by many, myself included, to be one of Vaughan Williams’ greatest works. However, it is available elsewhere in far better performances.

In spite of astute and informative program notes by Peter Rabinowitz, and despite the attractiveness and appropriateness of the pairing, the Centaur release must be judged a loser. The recording, marked “ADD,” exhibits some of the unnatural-sounding aspects of pure digital recording, while the performances are consistently mediocre.