BLOCH: Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 2; Schelomo.

BLOCH: Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 2; Schelomo. Georges Miquelle, cello; Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. MERCURY 432 718-2 [ADD]; 63:05 Produced by Wilma Cozart Fine

I have been an enthusiastic admirer of the Eastman/Mercury recordings ever since they were in their initial pressings. At that time my friends and I, avid members of our high school band, often got together for an evening of listening to these recordings, which left us thrilled by the music, awestruck by the performances, and stunned by the recordings.   . Ah, those were the days.   I suppose that sharing this sentimental recollection renders my credibility suspect, my critical objectivity contaminated. Well, you might be surprised: Listen to this 32-year old recording of the first movement of Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 and you tell me — Is this a demo-quality mind-blower–performance and sound quality–or not?

Now, as the Eastman/Mercury series is gradually reissued on CD, we have the opportunity to consider them afresh: To my mature and jaded ears, the recordings at hand, which belong to some of the later Eastman releases, are incredibly detailed and transparent (especially Schelomo). True, there is some audible hiss, but it is quickly absorbed within the aural gestalt; and the tremendous clarity is somewhat at the expense of sonic depth. Nevertheless, these are extraordinary recordings for their time, given new life through the marvels of the CD medium.

Of course, the sonic virtues of the Mercury recordings have been widely noted during recent years (although I must say that as I recall, they were not accorded such attention when they were new). However, what is only now beginning to emerge clearly, as we encounter fresh new interpretations of the American orchestral repertoire with increasing frequency, is how insightful a conductor, how persuasive an advocate, Howard Hanson was. Even discounting his performances of his own music, we are left with some of the most sympathetic and convincing interpretations of music by Samuel Barber, Walter Piston, Ernest Bloch, and others yet to appear on record.

The weak link in these performances — and it is not all that weak — is the level of orchestral execution. The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, mainly comprising conservatory students, lacked the solidity, richness of tonal blend, and confidence displayed by a major professional orchestra. These shortcomings are barely noticeable in performances of unfamiliar music, but with a work like Schelomo — which Hanson conceptualizes beautifully — the orchestra is clearly outclassed by the leading alternatives. And while Georges Miquelle was a respectable enough cellist, he lacked both the effortless technique and the power of projection of such virtuosos as Rostropovich or Starker, both of whom have made fine recordings of Schelomo.

But it is the Concerti Grossi that make this reissue so valuable. While neither piece delves into the metaphysical concerns that called forth Bloch’s greatness as a visionary composer, each is masterfully wrought, balancing vigorous Baroque counterpoint with a lovely, romantic warmth. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a listener who failed to be delighted by either work. When this recording originally appeared in 1960, it was the first to pair both Concerti Grossi on a single disc. Today, it remains the only such pairing. Both performances are excellent, if leaning more in the romantic direction than the Baroque. The well-considered realization of the second Concerto Grosso is especially remarkable in view of the fact that the work only seven years old at the time of recording.

In summary, this is a most worthwhile reissue and can be safely recommended to anyone who would like to have both Concerti Grossi on a single disc.