BLOCH Symphony in E-flat. Evocations. Three Jewish Poems

by Walter Simmons

BLOCH Symphony in E-flat. Evocations. Three Jewish Poems · Andrey Boreyko, cond; Malmö SO · BIS CD1183 (71:12)

Here is a worthwhile new release of three major works by Ernest Bloch that span more than forty years and represent three different phases of his compositional career. (I find it very perplexing that, while most of Bloch’s music is still rarely performed—certainly in the New York area—multiple recordings of some of his most obscure works are appearing with surprising frequency. Is someone buying these CDs? Is there a constituency for his music somewhere else in the world? I hope so.)

Three Jewish Poems was written in 1913, and was dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father, who had died that same year. Itis one of Bloch’s first efforts to capture “the Jewish soul” in music, and—truth to tell—it is probably the weakest of them. Nearly half an hour in duration, they also constitute his first mature, large-scale, purely instrumental effort structured without reliance on classical forms. Essentially three individual tone poems, they reveal Bloch’s inexperience with such a challenge. The music is highly picturesque and richly orchestrated, but without the intense emotionalism of the major works to follow. Each movement unfolds via leisurely motivic and textural elaborations, rather than through true development, creating the effect of a loosely sprawling panorama of exotic moods and images. Nearly thirty years later, Bloch created an elaborate verbal description—included with this release—to serve as program notes. Perhaps he realized that the music lacks sufficient structural focus to stand independently; the program notes provide apt imagery to guide the imagination.

Bloch spent most of the 1930s secluded in an Alpine retreat in Switzerland. It was during this period that he composed the three Evocations, a stronger work than either Voice in the Wilderness or the Violin Concerto, both composed at about the same time. They are also much stronger than the Jewish Poems, to which they are somewhat analogous in form. Here all the elements of mood, atmosphere, emotion, and gesture typical of Bloch’s music are realized with a tight sense of direction and a concise sense of structure. Inspired by Chinese artwork Bloch had found in a book, the movements are entitled “Contemplation,” “Houang Ti (God of War),” and “Renouveau (Springtime).” Their orientalism is wholly a fruit of the composer’s imagination, evoked along somewhat the same lines as found in works of Ravel. Yet it is basic Bloch, as representative as anything he wrote. The second movement, a demonic scherzo, reveals a savage power, and is one of his most vivid and exciting creations, while the impressionistic atmosphere of the outer movements is enriched by a warm lyricism. (I have often used the second movement in lectures, as a six-minute distillation of Bloch’s style during the central period of his compositional career.) The entire work is lavishly orchestrated, so that barely a measure fails to enhance the exotic mood and atmosphere that prevail throughout. The Evocationsare among the composer’s most fully realized works, certainly among purely orchestral music. Yet they did not appear on recording until 1994; this now is their third release on disc.

The Symphony in E-flat, completed in 1955, is the last of Bloch’s five (unnumbered) symphonies, and his final large-scale orchestral work. Many of Bloch’s late works are often described as “neo-classical,” but this characterization doesn’t really fit. In the case of this symphony, the content is certainly neo-romantic in the darkly foreboding atmosphere of its slower sections, and in the sardonic intimations of violence in the faster sections (which resemble analogous movements in the String Quartets Nos. 3, 4, and 5). On the other hand, its motoric rhythmic vigor and contrapuntal density are more aptly described as “neo-baroque” (it was originally conceived as Concerto Grosso No. 3). It is a strong, compact work, unified by a four-note motif that calls to mind both BACH and DEsCH. Despite its title, there is some 12-tone treatment of material, but within a harmonic context that is only slightly dissonant. The symphony is an important work from the composer’s last years, representing the final stage of his stylistic evolution. Its first recording was released in 1997. This is its second.

The Malmö (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra, here led by Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko, has been heard on some splendid recordings. These Bloch performances, while adequate, could be a bit more incisive and forceful; at times the orchestra sounds a little under-sized. The sound quality is clear and transparent, highlighting contrapuntal detail, which is nice. Selecting the best recordings from those available right now is complicated by several factors: Dalia Atlas Sternberg leads the Royal Philharmonic (ASV DCA-1019) in both the Jewish Poems and the E-flat Symphony (and two other rare items of Bloch) in renditions that are perhaps a little tighter and more solid. James Sedares conducts the New Zealand Symphony (Koch International 3-7232-2H1) in both the Jewish Poems and the Evocations—along with the only recording of Two Last Poems—in decent performances that are not so well recorded. This makes for some dilemmas and redundancies that each listener will have to weigh for him/herself.