BLOCH: Israel Symphony . Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Suites (3) for Cello Solo. Méditation Hébraïque. From Jewish Life. Nirvana. Nigun

BLOCH: Israel Symphony. Suite for Viola and Orchestra • Dalia Atlas, cond; Slovak Radio Orchestra; Atlas Camerata Orchestra; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; vocal quintet • ASV CD DCA-1148 (66:48)

BLOCH: Suites (3) for Cello Solo. Méditation Hébraïque. From Jewish Life. Nirvana. Nigun • Emmanuelle Bertrand (vc); Pascal Amoyel (pn) • HARMONIA MUNDI HMC-901810 (72:16)

Here is the latest crop of new releases of music by Ernest Bloch. Both works on the ASV disc, which continues the English company’s survey of Bloch’s music, date from the late 1910s, around the time of his arrival in America and his meteoric rise from total obscurity to national recognition as an important new voice of primal, ruthless emotional honesty. 

Clearly, the most significant addition is the new recording of the Israel Symphony, a work composed around the same time as Schelomo and of comparable style and quality, but much less frequently performed and recorded. The only explanation I can offer for its failure to achieve comparable popularity is the rather impractical requirement of five vocal soloists, whose contribution is limited to just the work’s last eight minutes or so. A half-hour span subdivided into three connected movements, the work is built symbolically around two Jewish holidays of the fall season: The first two sections refer to Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, while the third evokes the spirit of Succoth, the holiday of the harvest. The somber first movement serves as a compelling introduction, which accumulates intensity as it builds in a tightly focused expressive line. The second movement is the equivalent of a scherzo, a barbaric unleashing of wild energy that explodes without restraint until finally achieving a subdued resolution, which leads directly into the third section. After the tremendous concentration of the first two sections, the third is, admittedly, somewhat less compelling. A warm orchestral introduction builds to an exultant climax, followed by the entrance of the five solo voices-two sopranos, two contraltos, and one bass-who join in a humble prayer of supplication, to Bloch’s own text. This section unfolds in a leisurely fashion, with melodic lines strongly marked by Semitic inflections. Perhaps the serenity of this passage seems a little too easily won after the extended brooding and turbulence that precedes it. Nevertheless, in view of the Symphony’s overtly appealing qualities, it warrants more widespread familiarity than it has it is thus far achieved.

The most recent recording of the Israel Symphony of which I am aware was a Russian performance conducted by the late Yevgeni Svetlanov. However, this reading garnered such negative reviews that I never took the trouble to hear it myself. Before that the standard was set by a 1967 recording featuring Maurice Abravanel conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra, which eventually was re-issued on CD. The conception of that performance was beyond reproach, although ragged, out-of-tune playing and some shrill singing, coupled with out-dated sound quality, marred the actual experience. The performance at hand, featuring the Slovak Radio Orchestra conducted by ASV’s Bloch specialist Dalia Atlas, doesn’t deviate significantly from Abravanel’s conception, while offering somewhat better orchestral playing, considerably better singing, and vastly superior sonics-a significant factor for a work that creates such a richly colored orchestral sonority. The artistry of the Slovak vocal soloists renders the concluding section more convincingly, although the producers have not complied with Bloch’s stipulation that the singers be heard from back within the orchestra, rather than looming in the foreground. On balance, then, this reading may be regarded as an interim improvement that should attract a new audience to this important work, while a truly definitive recorded performance has yet to make its appearance.

Bloch completed his Suite for Viola and Piano in 1919, three years after the Israel Symphony, and orchestrated the piano part less than a year later. In this work Jewish references are largely disavowed, although suggestions of the “exotic” abound: much of it employs the same language heard in the earlier, explicitly Jewish works. Half an hour in duration, the Suite falls into four sections: an extended, multisectional first movement, followed by three shorter movements. Although Bloch attempted to discourage extramusical interpretations of the work, its boldly evocative character proved irresistible to critics and commentators, one going so far as to suggest that the work deals with “the progress from the early forms of life on earth up unto the earliest of our great human civilizations.”

The first movement is the most eloquent portion of the Suite, an impassioned, freely rhetorical soliloquy vaguely suggestive of a remote time and place, followed by a dance-like section, highly inflected with modal melodic twists of Middle-Eastern cast. The second movement is one of Bloch’s grotesque scherzos, with some brilliant material but a little cluttered with unfocused digressions. A beautifully haunted nocturne follows, shrouded in mystery. The final movement opens with a pentatonic theme that points obviously to the Far East. However, as in the scherzo, an excessive number of shifts in tempo and mood produce an episodic effect before the work comes to an uncharacteristically jubilant conclusion.

Although the Suite won the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Competition, and has always been highly regarded by the composer’s advocates, I have consistently found it to be weakened by episodic and digressive tendencies that blunt its effect, especially in the later movements. In fact, the argument can be made that the 15-minute first movement might have been more effective as a work in itself. In any case, the orchestral version is vastly preferable, allowing the Suite’s richly perfumed atmosphere, implicit but dormant in the piano original, to blossom fully, along with its subjective orientalism.

The performance by the Russian-Israeli violist Yuri Gandelsman is as good as any I’ve heard, and better than most, with fine support provided by the Atlas Camerata. This Israeli ensemble, formed by the eponymous conductor, seems somewhat more polished and precise than the larger Slovak orchestra. In summary, this release-though not the last word-offers collectors of Bloch’s music a welcome opportunity to upgrade their recorded representation of two of his major works.

The recent Harmonia Mundi release features an excellent French duo: cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand and pianist Pascal Amoyel. Their disc is built around the three suites for cello solo that Bloch composed in 1956-57, shortly before his death. Nestled among them on this recording are also several rarities by the composer.
Many Bloch enthusiasts consider the six unaccompanied suites he composed during the last three years of his life-three for cello, two for violin, and one (incomplete) for viola-to be among his finest achievements. I do not share this view (although regular readers of mine are probably aware by now that I have some distaste for unaccompanied pieces for solo strings). I feel that the nature of Bloch’s creative personality requires harmonic density and fullness of sonority; the solo string medium is just too rarefied for his mode of expression, resulting in what are to me largely sterile compositional exercises. This having been said, I will add that Cello Suites Nos. 1 and 3 are clearly in the Baroque manner, while No. 2 — the longest — is a deeper, more personal work, austere though it is. Cellist Bertrand’s readings of all three are exquisitely shaped and executed.

But it is the other oddments on the disc that hold particular interest for me. Nirvanais one of the many short pieces Bloch composed (along with quite a few large-scale works) during his years as Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music (1920-25). Many of these short pieces are mysterious and exotic nocturnes—the composer’s brand of “night music.” A work for piano solo, Nirvana is one of the strangest of these in its attempt to conjure a remote other—worldliness. Pianist Pascal Amoyel emphasizes this quality by taking an exceedingly slow tempo and maintaining a sort of dynamic stasis, going a good deal beyond the composer’s actual score indications-somewhat like Ernest Bloch seen through the sensibility of Morton Feldman.

Composed the following year, in 1924, was Méditation Hébraïque. Written for Pablo Casals (who proclaimed Bloch as one of the 20th-century’s supreme masters), it resembles Nuit Exotique for violin and piano, and sounds exactly as one might expect: introspective reflections, often quite eloquent, in an Impressionistic language with a Jewish accent. Quarter-tones are used for the purpose of expressive inflection, as in the Piano Quintet No. 1. From Jewish Life is a suite in three short movements, rather like a cello-and-piano counterpart to the Baal Shem Suite, but a bit less extroverted and passionate, more quietly soulful, as befits the instrument (all pieces noted in this paragraph date from 1923-24). And, speaking of the latter well-known triptych of Jewish pieces, Bertrand and Amoyel conclude the CD with an arrangement for cello and piano of the central “Nigun” movement from that suite-a staple of the recital repertoire for violin and piano. This is an obvious and natural adaptation, in view of the composer’s partiality for the cello. The duo’s compelling performance of this passionate incantation argues persuasively for its use as a vehicle for that instrument as well.