BLOCH Concerto Symphonique. Scherzo Fantasque. Hiver-Printemps • Alexander Tchernushenko, cond; State Academic Cappella of St. Petersburg SO; Halida Dinova (pn) • CHANDOS CHAN-10085 (62:03)
This recent release offers what is, to the best of my knowledge, the third recording of Bloch’s piano concerto. Although it is rarely heard, this sprawling work, its three movements totaling some 40 minutes, is one of the composer’s most ambitious efforts, far more effectively wrought than the better known violin concerto written ten years earlier. Its relative obscurity is most likely attributable to three factors: 1) it lacks distinctive, strongly contoured thematic ideas, relying instead on the intensive development of a few short motifs; 2) as its title suggests, the piano serves as a strong solo voice within a tightly integrated symphonic structure, rather than the more conventional role of heroic protagonist; 3) composed in 1948, it belongs to Bloch’s fertile late period, by which time he was no longer considered a creative figure of central importance: few, if any, of the works from this phase of his career have achieved anything approaching familiarity. I am not sure about the relative impact of these factors, but I do believe that Bloch’s Concerto Symphonique compares favorably with any other piano concerto composed during the 1940s. And while it may lack the sort of high-profile themes that ingratiate their way into the memory of the general listener, it offers instead a turbulent drama of struggle and conflict, unified by strong motivic inter-relationships among its three movements, and a broad expressive spectrum ranging from the plaintive and mysterious to the diabolical and grotesque, finding repose in periods of perfumed reflection before achieving a sardonic triumph.
Immediately upon completion of the Concerto Symphonique, Bloch turned his attention to another work for piano and orchestra, which he entitled, Scherzo Fantasque. Interestingly, the second movement of the Concerto happens to be a scherzo, within which is embedded a somber episode that serves as a “slow movement.” It is therefore difficult not to see the Scherzo Fantasque as representing something of an alternative second movement for the Concerto. Choosing finally as he did left this perfectly respectable movement as a stand-alone piece in its own right. Unfortunately, the 10-minute single-movement work for solo and orchestra exemplifies a genre that seems to have no place in today’s concert programming, leaving this and many other fine works of its kind viable only on recording (a medium that has far surpassed the concert hall as the operative reality for the showcasing of classical music). Although the casual listener will likely perceive the Scherzo Fantasque as cut from the same cloth as the Concerto Symphonique, the former is shorter, tighter, and more streamlined than the corresponding movement of the latter work, driven forward by a motoric triplet pattern that pervades its outer sections, which surround a plaintively Hebraic central episode.
The Russian soloist, conductor, and orchestra join in creating powerfully convincing readings of both works. However, also worthy of consideration is a 1991 Laurel release (LR-851) that offers both pieces in equally persuasive, similarly conceived performances by then-19-year-old Japanese pianist Micah Yui, with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Amos. (Despite rumors that Laurel recordings are no longer available, I am assured by John Gilbert, current director and son of the label’s late founder, Herschel Gilbert, that the entire Laurel catalog is still available and accessible at www.LaurelRecords.com).
Many listeners may find their choice of recording determined by the additional piece found on each release. The Laurel release includes a slightly sluggish performance of Bloch’s eloquent Concerto Grosso No. 2, while the new Chandos disc offers the very early (1905) tone poems, Hiver-Printemps (Winter-Spring). The issue is further complicated by the fact that this pair of pieces recently enjoyed its premiere recording on an indispensable Timpani release featuring other early works of Bloch (1C1052; see Fanfare 23:5, my 2000 Want List, or my website at www.Walter-Simmons.com). Thus the reader will have to weigh these factors according to his own individual considerations.
Completed before the opera Macbeth, Hiver-Printemps is the earliest work in which Bloch’s distinctive identity can be discerned. Strongly influenced by Debussy, the first section evokes a mood of gentle mystery, with some plaintive surges that betray Bloch’s stylistic fingerprints. The second section is a bit more conventional, playful in character, but builds to a lush, almost Puccinian melodic climax before receding. Although it is not of central importance within the composer’s output, no serious admirer of his music will want to overlook this work in either of its fine recorded performances.