by Walter Simmons
BLOCH Helvetia. Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Suite Hébraïque • Gérard Caussé (va); Lior Shambadal, cond; L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande • CASCAVELLE RSR-6170 (72:19)
It was just a year ago that I reviewed what I described as the first recording ever of Bloch’s Helvetia—The Land of Mountains and Its People, the last major work by this composer to find its way onto recording, presented by David Amos and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Kleos KL5134). In that review I referred to the fact that there was another recent recording floating around, but I could not gain access to it until now. It so happens that this Swiss recording actually predated the Kleos release by a year or two (not that this is of any particular importance).
Helvetia is the last (1929) of the three homages that Bloch composed to honor the three nations with which he identified himself: Switzerland, the land of his birth; America, his adopted homeland; and Israel, a metaphorical nation at the time (1916), representative of his people. Like America: An Epic Rhapsody, Helvetia is a warmly affectionate work, at times verging on the sentimental. Though not one of his masterpieces, it is nevertheless the work of a supreme master, and, as such, displays impeccable craftsmanship, as well as an eloquence that at times is almost magical. There are lovely moments here that no admirer of Bloch’s work would want to miss. Those listeners who can appreciate America are similarly likely to enjoy Helvetia.
Amos’s performance of Helvetia is excellent, but so is Israeli conductor Shambadal’s—I couldn’t begin to choose between them. What clearly distinguishes the two recordings, however, are the very different programs involved. The Kleos release groups the Bloch with two fascinating piano concertos by the largely-forgotten composer-pianist Isidor Achron (best known as one of Jascha Heifetz’s accompanists), and an unusual work by Lazar Saminsky. Those who are intrigued by these hitherto obscure works will want the Kleos disc.
But the Cascavelle disc is excellent also, and listeners to whom this program appeals will not be disappointed either. The early (1919-20) Suite for Viola and Orchestra is one of Bloch’s more familiar works, although it is one that I find to be somewhat over-extended.
ArkivMusic.com lists four other current recordings. Of those I prefer the ASV release, which features violist Yuri Gandelsman, with an Israeli pick-up orchestra conducted by Dalia Atlas. But I would place the performance at hand, with soloist Gérard Caussé, at a comparable level. The latter has perhaps a greater fluency and brilliance, while Gandelsman is a bit fuller and heavier in approach. The ASV recording is somewhat more vivid and transparent.
Suite Hébraïque is a less ambitious, more relaxed piece, composed during the early 1950s. There appear to be nine recordings of the work currently available, some featuring viola, some violin; some with piano, some with orchestra. I haven’t heard them all, but feel confident that this one is at least as good as any.
In summary, program considerations relative to one’s own collection are likely to determine one’s interest in this recent release. An additional feature worthy of mention is the liner note, written by Joseph Lewinski, author of the recent four-volume French-language study of the composer’s life and works.