BLOCH Piano Sonata. Visions and Prophecies. Five Sketches in Sepia. Nirvana. In the Night. Enfantines.

BLOCH Piano Sonata. Visions and Prophecies. Five Sketches in Sepia. Nirvana. In the Night. Enfantines· Margaret Fingerhut (pn) · CHANDOS CHAN-9887 (71:26) 

Ernest Bloch composed relatively few works for piano solo, and what there is is performed and recorded infrequently, although none of it is without merit. Having been quite impressed by the artistry of English pianist Margaret Fingerhut from her recording of the piano solo version of Vítezslav Novák’s huge tone poem Pan, I was curious to hear how she would handle these works of Bloch.

The one piece of large scale and substantive importance is the Piano Sonata, composed in 1935. A quintessentially neo-romantic statement of angst in three movements of some 23 minutes duration, the Sonata represents a harsh, restless, and tempestuous existential commentary, unified by key motifs in various transformations, its agitated mood relieved by tranquil reveries evocative of strange, exotic mysteries. Condensed within the confines of a single instrument, the piece provides an excellent opportunity to study Bloch’s harmonic language at its most dissonant, with raging polychords and prominent use of chords highlighting 2nds, 7ths, and 9ths. It is not an easy piece to perform effectively, because, although it is an eloquent work of musical expression, its articulation does not make optimal use of the piano’s resonance. (Were it orchestrated, it would make a most impressive symphonic work.) After many years during which the Sonata languished, represented on recording only by old readings of mediocre quality, the past fifteen years or so have seen the appearance of two recorded performances that really present the work to its best advantage. One is the debut recording of the gifted young American pianist Myron Silberstein (Connoisseur Society CD4208). He also included the brief nocturne In the Night on his program, as well as music by Cesar Franck and Vittorio Giannini. The other features the Hungarian pianist István Kassai, on Volume II of the two-volume set (Marco Polo 8.223288/9) of Bloch’s complete music for piano solo. And now, as part of a one-volume Bloch program, Fingerhut offers the finest reading of the work yet to appear—a thoroughly coherent conception, technically secure, and enhanced by an extraordinarily rich, spacious, yet transparent sonic ambiance.

Also exemplifying Bloch’s most mature harmonic and textural language are the Visions and Prophecies—piano arrangements, made in 1940, of the orchestral statements that introduce each section of Voice in the Wilderness (i.e., minus the cello commentaries). So abbreviated, at less than half the duration of the original work, the result is a haunting group of five highly perfumed preludes.

The remaining music all dates from 1922-23, during the composer’s tenure as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, although their language is not significantly different from that found in the later works. Five Sketches in Sepiaare also five preludes averaging about two minutes apiece. These ruminative, improvisatory pieces are remarkable for fragmentary, wispy gestures that at times suggest the late music of Scriabin. In the Night and Nirvana are two of the many nocturnal character pieces that Bloch composed for various instrumental media, reflecting his own highly personal adaptation of impressionism. As captivating and mysterious as all these pieces are, just how much more effective they might be in orchestral dress may be inferred from the orchestrated version of In the Night(recorded on Timpani 1C1052).

Obviously, Fingerhut’s one-disc program entails the omission of several pieces included in the complete Marco Polo set: Poems of the SeaCircus PiecesEx-Voto, and Danse Sacrée. None of these is an undisputed masterpiece, although all are worthy of attention and exposure. One might quibble—as I did upon initially inspecting this CD—that the 15 minutes taken up by Enfantines, ten little pieces for the young pianist, might have been better utilized by including some of the other “grown-up” compositions. However, it is difficult to maintain this position once one hears these delicately touching, Debussy-inspired student-pieces, in the meticulous and sensitive readings given here by Fingerhut.

In summary, the enthusiast hungry for a complete traversal of Bloch’s music for piano solo has no choice but to acquire István Kassai’s excellent two-disc Marco Polo set. However, if one disc is enough, one cannot do better than Margaret Fingerhut’s new Bloch recital on Chandos.