BLOCH: Concerto Symphonique; Scherzo Fantasque; Concerto Grosso No. 2.

BLOCH: Concerto Symphonique; Scherzo Fantasque; Concerto Grosso No. 2.  Micah Yui, piano; David Amos conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. LAUREL LR-851CD [ADD]; 68:33 Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

This latest entry in Laurel’s continuing exploration of the music of Ernest Bloch features three works that, for one reason or another have generally been overlooked, though each is a substantial, fully consummated effort, requiring no apology.  Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra (1948) is, at 40 minutes, the most expansive work — in form, not only duration — of Bloch’s later, Oregon years. Unlike most of his compositions from this period, which are notable for their concision, the concerto is a sprawling, highly moody, and dramatic work in the mainstream of the composer’s mature, secular, hyper-romantic vein, with all the strengths (and weaknesses) this implies: Its emotional tone is by turns portentous, defiant, and grotesquely sardonic, suggesting a commentary on life’s most troubling concerns — concerns that seemed to haunt the composer throughout his life. Bloch evoked such moods and feelings with extraordinary eloquence, through his own synthesis of most of the major currents of early twentieth-century syntax — especially with regard to the subtle control of tonality and dissonance — into a personal and highly versatile expressionism. On the other hand, the concerto’s formal structure is loose and rhapsodic, with perhaps excessive recourse to sequences in rising minor thirds as a facile means of increasing tension. The piano functions more as a commentator than as a protagonist, in the conventional romantic sense. This means that, though the work has its heroic aspects, the piano does not play that particular role, which may account for its notable infrequency of performance.

The only previous recording of the Concerto Symphonique was a Vanguard release from 1963 that featured pianist Marjorie Mitchell and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Vladimir Golschmann. That recording, reissued a couple of years ago on CD (Vanguard VCD-72031), served adequately to introduce the work to interested listeners. However, the orchestra was weak and the recording quality was sub-standard for its time — dull and tinny, with the piano lacking sufficient presence (perhaps the result of a misguided or overdone attempt to address the work’s Svmphonique aspect, by treating the solo instrument as a component of the orchestra, rather than as the center of attention). Laurel’s new release, featuring Japanese pianist Micah Yui (who was 19 years old when she made the recording) is far superior on all these counts: The orchestra is bright and vivid, and the piano solo, capably rendered, is more effectively balanced, resulting in a brilliant and far more persuasive reading.

Curiously enough, shortly after Bloch completed the Concerto Svmphonique, he turned his attention immediately to another work for piano and orchestra, theScherzo Fantasque. The only reason I can propose for the neglect of this exciting, power-packed little piece is the general difficulty of finding a place on concert programs for short, one-movement solo-with-orchestra works. (This is most unfortunate, because composers have had no compunction about producing such works, many of them quite superb.) Scherzo Fantasque is a nine-minute work in conventional ternary structure, the outer sections of which are propelled by a driving triplet pattern, while the central section is characteristically mysterious, exotic, and rhapsodic. Unlike the Concerto Symphonique, it is tersely articulated and tightly structured, with no superfluous meanderings.

Here again there is but one prior recording, a 1965 issue from RCA Victor (LSC-2801) featuring 21-year old Lorin Hollander with the Royal Philharmonic under Andre Previn’s direction. That was a splendid reading, though it has long been unavailable. The new Yui/LSO performance is also excellent.

Bloch composed his Concerto Grosso No. 2 in 1952, some 27 years after its familiar predecessor. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of the earlier work is probably the chief explanation for the relative neglect of the later one, as the latter offers all the virtues — the neo-Baroque vigor, tempered by a romantic warmth and tenderness — provided by the former. In fact, the chief distinction between the two works is structural, rather than stylistic: While the concertante element of the first is a piano obbligato, in the second it is the juxtaposition of a solo quartet against the larger ensemble.

If I am not mistaken, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 has been recorded twice before: an MGM recording from the mid-1950s, conducted by Izler Solomon (which I don’t remember ever hearing) and a Mercury issue from the early 1960s, featuring fine penetrating readings of both concerti grossi, led by Howard Hanson, with the strings of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (I wouldn’t be surprised to see this recording re-appear on CD). On the new Laurel release, the strings of the London Symphony are captured in a full, rich sonic context, under the generally sympathetic leadership of David Amos. My only serious reservation involves the inexplicably slow tempo of the first movement’s fugal allegro — a general tendency I have noted in Amos’ handling of contrapuntal textures — which constrains the music’s inner pulse and drains it of vitality.

This is an important new release, indispensable for all admirers of Bloch’s music, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the works included.