BLOCH Sacred Service. Schelomo. From Jewish Life (excerpts) · Ernest Bloch, cond; (pn);London Phil Ch and O; Marko Rothmuller (cantor);Zara Nelsova (vc) · PEARL GEM-0164, mono/analog (69:03)
Like the recent Pearl release of Barber conducting Barber (Fanfare 25:5), this new issue offers the opportunity to hear a composer in the unusual role of conductor of his own music. (Coincidentally, Zara Nelsova appears as soloist on both discs.) Interestingly, as in the Barber release, the most salient quality that emerges from these performances is their generally understated, con moto approach, with little lingering or fussiness. In his program notes Harris Goldsmith uses this observation as a springboard from which to criticize performances of Bloch’s music—Schelomo, in particular—that follow a “wrongheaded ‘Ben Hur’ tradition of interpreting it as a Hollywood extravaganza” by aiming toward a “’going for the jugular’ effectiveness.” Goldsmith goes so far as to name the Rostropovich/Bernstein and Feuermann/Stokowski recordings as chief culprits, characterizing them with the catchall politically correct euphemism, “inappropriate.”
To the contrary, I believe that Bloch’s works call for an intense and passionate—even hyperbolic—performance style, to fulfill what is implicit in the dramatic rhetoric of the music itself. Indeed, I consider the Rostropovich/Bernstein performance of Schelomo to be the best I have ever heard—and I have heard many. Furthermore, I feel that Bloch’s works have suffered as a result of performances that failed to match the “perfervid” (a word Goldsmith uses with considerable ambivalence) intensity of the music. The effect of such performances is the musical equivalent of “constant whining and complaining,” so to speak, instead of grand oratorical eloquence. The point of view expressed by Goldsmith and others derives, I believe, from an embarrassment about what Bloch’s music is truly about—indeed, from an internalization of a more puritanical—shall we say, WASP?—aesthetic, which is applied more stringently to Bloch than, say, to Italian composers such as Verdi and Puccini. Bloch truly was “going for the jugular,” and therein lies much of his greatness. There is no more reason to tame his music than to do so to the music of the aforementioned Italians, or of Tchaikovsky, or of other composers who had no interest in being “appropriate.” Then let’s consider that “wrongheaded ‘Ben Hur’ tradition of interpreting [Schelomo] as a Hollywood extravaganza” (notice the use of attributive epithets rather than actual substantive descriptors—the unmistakable signal of an appeal to prejudice). By “’Ben Hur’ tradition,” is he referring to the musical style of Miklos Rozsa? Let’s remember that this aspect of Bloch’s style developed between 1905 and1920. Rozsa learned much from Bloch. What is there to sneer about?
So what about Bloch’s own understated performances? I don’t think they are restrained for the reasons Goldsmith suggests. As I noted in the aforementioned Barber review, composers who are not professional conductors lean toward brisk tempos, because their perspectives as composers are not attuned to the process of apprehension by the listener. Much of what is thought of as “interpretation” involves the sensitive shaping of nuances and details to enhance and enrich the meaning of the work—details that might easily be overlooked by the listener not yet familiar with the music. Mind you, this is not an endorsement of excessive and gratuitous “spotlighting,”—certainly not at the expense of the underlying rhythmic thrust, music’s fundamental life-force—or of any imprecision in intonation. But such considerations must be borne in mind before one decides that a composer’s rendition of his own music is definitive—unless he is experienced as an interpreter of other composers’ music.
While I believe that those who prefer to “restrain” Bloch’s music are motivated by embarrassment at the hyperbole of its rhetoric and at various invidious associations with it, I also feel that Bloch’s musical personality has been over-identified with “Jewishness.” Bloch’s aesthetic—in all its emotional extravagance—was abstract and universal. Embracing Jewish subjects, as in the works presented here, made him no more a composer of “Jewish music” than composing masses made Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven composers of “Christian music.” (According to my calculation, Jewish subject matter was involved in only 16% of Bloch’s output.)
The performances offered here were all recorded in England in 1950. Apart from the points discussed above, Nelsova’s sensitive, refined reading of the lavishly orchestrated Schelomo is severely compromised by the opaque, gray sonic ambiance representative of its vintage. On the other hand, the performance of the Sacred Service—certainly one of Bloch’s greatest works, and possibly the greatest work of Jewish liturgical music—has more to recommend it. For one thing, the work has not exactly been over-represented on disc, and all the recorded performances known to me have shortcomings or limitations of one kind or another. A serious and egregiously common misjudgment is the practice—initiated by Leonard Bernstein, according to Bloch’s daughter—of speaking the notated recitative in the final portion of the work. Although Bloch used the term “spoken voice” in the score, the indication of musical pitches suggests that he was referring to a form of chanting, rather than actual speech. Not only is this portion spoken (by a rabbi) on the Bernstein release of 1960 (which boasts Robert Merrill, the finest cantor on recording), but also on the Maurice Abravanel/Utah Symphony rendition, released in 1978. In 1980 Chandos issued a performance in which Geoffrey Simon conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and associated choirs. I hold this to be the preferred recording, because of the fine orchestral and choral performance, excellent sound quality, and the fact that the recitative is chanted rather than spoken. However, cantor Louis Berkman is no Robert Merrill. All three of these recordings are sung in Hebrew. Only Bloch’s own recording, reissued here, is sung in English. Though language is a matter of personal preference, presenting the work in English does emphasize its universality, and it’s nice to have the choice. For some reason the sound quality of the Bloch-conducted version is not at all bad—quite a bit better for this work than for Schelomo—so the fact that it is a monaural recording is not a reason for disqualification. Marko Rothmuller is a musically sensitive, warmly expressive cantor, but his vocal quality does not approach the standards of bel canto. All these compromises simply point to the need for a still-better recording. It is too bad that Sherrill Milnes never recorded the work while in his prime. (He sang it beautifully in a live performance I have on tape.)
From Jewish Life comprises three short pieces for cello and piano and is quite a rarity. It’s nice to have the second and third pieces, “Supplication” and “Jewish Song,” but I do believe that the opening “Prayer” was recorded as well, and I don’t understand why it is not included here.
The curious listener might be interested to know that other recorded performances that embrace and project the full range of Bloch’s passionate intensity without embarrassment or any compromise in precision or accuracy include the Weilerstein Duo’s reading of the Violin Sonata No. 1 (Arabesque Z6605) and the Pro Arte Quartet’s renditions of the String Quartet No. 1 (Laurel LR-120 [LP only]) and No. 2 (Laurel LR-826CD), and of the two Piano Quintets (Laurel LR-848CD).