BLOCH Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and its People. I. ACHRON Piano Concertos No. 1; No. 2. SAMINSKY The Vow: Rhapsodic Variations on a Dual Theme

BLOCH Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and its PeopleI. ACHRON Piano Concertos No. 1; No. 2. SAMINSKY The Vow: Rhapsodic Variations on a Dual Theme • David Amos, cond; Royal Scottish Nat O; Barry Goldsmith (pn) • KLEOS KL5134 (73:42)

This recent release offers some most unusual programming, and warrants the attention of those listeners who have been following Naxos’ Milken Archive project and are generally interested in Jewish-American composers whose reputations have fallen by the wayside. Each of the four works presented here was composed during the first half of the 20th century, and each composer was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. From a purely musical standpoint, the most significant work is the first commercial recording of Ernest Bloch’s homage to his native country: Helvetia—The Land of Mountains and Its People. But from a historical standpoint, the works by Isidor Achron (1892-1948) and Lazar Saminsky (1882-1959)—two utterly obscure figures today, but fairly prominent some 60 years ago—hold considerable fascination of their own.

Another example of the type of coincidence I have observed so many times that it has become virtually predictable, this initial release of Bloch’s Helvetia—the last of his major works to appear on recording—was accompanied by the near-simultaneous release of a Swiss recording of the piece by the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Lior Shambadal, on the Cascavelle label (RSR6170, coupled with Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra, and Suite Hébraïque). However, after requesting a review copy of that recording and waiting in vain for months, I decided to give up and not delay this review any longer.

Helvetia, the last of Bloch’s tributes to his tri-partite heritage, was completed in 1929, following the Israel Symphony (1916) and America: An Epic Rhapsody(1926). Though less than half as long as its predecessor, it shares much in common with that work: Like America, it was the winner of a significant composition award, this one sponsored by RCA Victor; it is also similarly affectionate and heartfelt, with much that is beautifully moving, as well as passages that cross the line into banal exultation. (Other moments are surprisingly Mahlerian.) The work falls into five connected sections or “frescoes,” each associated with an aspect of Swiss history or culture, or with its natural beauty. Bloch left rather elaborate program notes that make its references abundantly clear. Though it is not a masterpiece, one can safely predict that Helvetia will appeal to those listeners who appreciate the virtues of America. Its utter neglect is hard to understand—one would expect that at least in Switzerland itself it would be held in some esteem. Is there a better work that celebrates this country?

Isidor Achron was the slightly lesser-known younger brother of Joseph Achron, a violinist and composer of Jewish-oriented music, largely remembered today through the championing of some of his works by Jascha Heifetz. Those familiar with Isidor’s name probably recall him as Heifetz’s accompanist from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s. But during his heyday he was also renowned as a piano soloist and composer of some distinction. Of Polish-Russian background, Isidor Achron studied composition with Anatol Liadov, before coming to the United States in 1922. The concertos offered here date from 1937 and 1942; both were introduced by the composer, under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli, the first with the New York Philharmonic.

Achron’s Concerto No. 1 is a 17-minute work cast in a single movement. I must admit to finding its stylistic and aesthetic identity rather fascinating: While I was listening to it, the associations that occurred to me included the music of Scriabin, of Paul Creston, and of Gershwin minus the latter’s tunefulness. Achron seemed to have a fascination with the whole-tone scale, and with the augmented-eleventh chord derived from it (hence the Creston association), which enabled him to avoid strong tonal centers while retaining an opulently romantic sound overall. On the whole, one might place the work in the general stylistic neighborhood of Addinsell’s once-popular Warsaw Concerto, although perhaps its fatal weakness is the absence of memorable thematic ideas.
The Concerto No. 2 is a more ambitious affair, falling into the conventional three-movement design, and lasting some 24 minutes. Its overall style is essentially the same as its predecessor’s, although the elaborate first movement does boast a big, romantic theme, a la Rachmaninoff. Again the whole-tone scale plays an important fundamental role, which eventually results in a rather vague expressive character, as is typical with the use of scales and modes whose symmetrical arrangement of intervals prevents the emergence of a clear tonic. Both concertos are filled with the conventional virtuoso fireworks customary for the genre.

The work I found least interesting was Lazar Saminsky’s The Vow—Rhapsodic Variations on a Dual Theme. Born in Ukraine, Saminsky, a virtual contemporary of Bloch, studied both mathematics and philosophy in Russia, in addition to musical studies with Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Settling in New York in 1920, he was active as a musicologist and conductor, as well as a widely-performed composer of works in all standard genres. Apparently he worked on The Vow on and off from 1917 until 1943, although he never got around to orchestrating it. The program notes—disappointingly skimpy for both Achron and Saminsky—offer no explanation for the work’s title. Evidently, pianist Goldsmith discovered the two-piano score in manuscript, and requested an orchestration from San Diego composer and arranger Abelardo Flores, who provided a fine one. The set of variations on two Jewish-oriented themes resembles the music of Bloch, not surprisingly. However, the comparison is not advantageous to Saminsky, whose work, though not without some attractively evocative moments, is rather colorless, lacking the strong personality and fervent intensity of his better-known contemporary. Nevertheless, I am glad to have made the acquaintance of some actual music by a man whose name I have encountered often while poring over program notes from the second quarter of the 20th century.

Each work on the disc is performed with sympathetic conviction and superb artistry. Barry Goldsmith is an accomplished virtuoso with considerable technique and sensitivity. David Amos, an indefatigable musical adventurer, has built a substantial reputation during the past 25 years for his many valuable premiere recordings of distinguished but little-known works of the 20th century. He continues to increase his impressive discography with these fascinating performances. One caveat to the prospective purchaser: The CD tray-card indicates a total timing of 50:31, which drastically short-changes the production, as indicated by the correct timing in the headnote above.