BLOCH: Piano Works, Volume 1: Poems of the Sea; Five Sketches in Sepia; Nirvana; In the Night; Enfantines; Four Circus Pieces. Volume 2: Sonata; Visions and Prophecies; Ex-voto; Danse Sacree

BLOCH: Piano Works, Volume 1. Poems of the Sea; Five Sketches in Sepia; Nirvana; In the Night; Enfantines; Four Circus Pieces.  Istvan Kassai, piano. MARCO POLO 8.223288 [DDD]; 56:26. Produced by Monika Feszler and Antal Dora.

BLOCH: Piano Works, Volume 2. Sonata; Visions and Prophecies; Ex-voto; Danse Sacrée. Istvan Kassai, piano. MARCO POLO 8.223289 [DDD]; 40:39. Produced by Monika Feszler and Antal Dora

One does not ordinarily associate Ernest Bloch with music for piano solo; indeed, not even the best known of these pieces can be said to have entered the regular repertoire. Thus admirers of Bloch’s music have reason to cheer the appearance of these two CDs that purport to offer the composer’s complete piano solo output, including a number of pieces new to recordings.

The vast majority of Bloch’s compositional output appeared during two incredibly fertile periods: the early 1920s, shortly after his immigration to the United States, when he served as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the 1950s — his final decade — which he spent living on the coast of Oregon. Most of Bloch’s solo piano music dates from the Cleveland years — specifically, from the two-year period, 1922-23. The exceptions are the brief Ex-voto, composed in 1914, before the composer came to this country, and two larger works–the Sonata and Visions and Prophecies — composed during the 1930s, when he had returned to live in Europe for several years. All this piano music (except for the Sonata) comprises either brief, individual character pieces or collections of same, many of them in the style of mysterious, exotic nocturnes — a genre to which Bloch contributed generously, with similar pieces for violin and piano and for string quartet as well. None of these pieces has ever attained prominence, but the recent appearance of so much of Bloch’s lesser-known music on recordings has brought to light many beautifully evocative miniatures that could easily enhance a variety of programming contexts.

The relatively early Ex-voto had been published in a Swiss fashion magazine(!) and was discovered among the composer’s papers after his death. Three minutes long and simple to play, it conjures a haunting, solemn beauty.

In the Night is one of the pieces from 1922. Subtitled “a love poem,” it is a mysterious, deeply-felt miniature that, like much of Bloch’s piano music, shows the influence of Debussy as filtered through his own unique sensibility. Somewhat better known are the Poems of the Sea, composed the same year. These three short, impressionistic tone poems with folk-like melodic touches are attractively evocative, if somewhat conventional in their manner of effect. Also dating from 1922 are the Four Circus Pieces, written in the space of a few days and never intended for publication. I suppose that some listeners will be amused by them and will enjoy discovering an unfamiliar side of the composer’s personality in their impish grotesquerie. But I find these burlesques, which instantly call both Golliwog and Petrouchka to mind, somewhat second-hand, inauthentic, and unimportant.

A good deal more piano music appeared the following year. There are the Enfantines, a series of ten pieces for children. This is one of the loveliest, most inspired collections of easy piano pieces I know, with a sweet, delicate warmth that may surprise listeners used to Bloch’s more familiar persona as “impassioned prophet of doom.” Here again the influence of Debussy is evident. My only reservation is that while the Enfantines are delightful pieces to play (or to hear one’s children play), they are not the kind of music that “the serious record collector” is likely to return to for repeated listening.  I guess what bothers me — and it is my only real quibble regarding these new discs — is that if the Enfantinesand the Four Circus Pieces had been omitted, the remainder of the music could have fit on one CD, to the advantage of the prospective consumer. 

Also from 1923 is Danse Sacrée, one of the only surviving fragments from Bloch’s projected (but uncompleted) opera, Jezabel. The dance is a slow, exotic piece of quasi-Oriental impressionism, a bit more symmetrical and predictable than the composer’s best efforts in this vein. For example, Nirvana, written the same year, is a miniature masterpiece — profoundly introspective, other-worldly, and pure Bloch. Concluding this period of the composer’s piano music are the Five Sketches in Sepia, a group of short preludes whose sparse, fragmentary figurations and attenuated tonality suggest late Scriabin. 

Bloch’s major large-scale solo piano composition is his 1935 Sonata, a stern metaphysical statement in three connected movements that total nearly 25 minutes. Similar in conception to the earlier Violin Sonata No. 1 and Piano Quintet No. 1, the Piano Sonata communicates through a rich, expressionistic language of expanded tonality and cyclical techniques, created by fusing both French and (to a lesser extent) German elements current during the early 1900s with the violent passion, exoticism, and idealism of Bloch’s own creative temperament. A minor technical glitch: There is only one cue for the Sonata although one for each movement is listed on the package, throwing off the whole list of cues.

The following year saw the completion of Voice in the Wilderness, a suite in six movements for cello and orchestra. Each movement opens with a richly-colored orchestral statement, followed by a reflective commentary by the cello. Shortly after finishing this work, Bloch adapted much of the orchestral material into a five-movement piano suite called Visions and Prophecies. Though somewhat pale and two-dimensional without orchestral dress, the result is tighter and more concise than the version with cello, while the piano sonority lends clarity to the composer’s mature, highly inflected harmonic language. This group of darkly atmospheric mood portraits is probably Bloch’s most successful group of miniatures.

Istvan Kassai is a Hungarian pianist in his early 30s who has won his share of awards and prizes, although I have not encountered his name before. He presents Bloch’s piano music with persuasiveness and conviction, exhibiting particular sensitivity to matters of tonal coloration, which (as implied) highlights the music’s stylistic lineage from Debussy — even in the case of the aggressive Sonata. An older recording of the Sonata featuring another Hungarian pianist, Istvan Nadas (on a Period LP from the 1950s) displayed somewhat more impetuosity and abandon. But Kassai’s fine rendition does not suffer by comparison. Indeed, these richly recorded performances justify further consideration of music that has been all but overlooked for more than half a century.