by Walter Simmons
BLOCH Two Psalms.Three Jewish Poems. Baal Shem Suite. Suite Hébraïque – Steven Sloane, cond; German SO, Berlin; Christiane Oelze (sop); Antje Weithaas (vn); Tabea Zimmermann (va) – CAPRICCIO 5001 (65:55)
This is a perfectly adequate recording of four of Ernest Bloch’s lesser Jewish-oriented works. Those who are familiar with the masterpieces among the composer’s efforts to capture “the Jewish soul” in music—Schelomo, the Israel Symphony, and the Sacred Service—and are moved to expand their range of familiarity are not likely to be disappointed by this release. However, serious devotees of the music of Bloch may well have these pieces already, and, possibly, in superior performances found with other couplings.
For example, the settings of Psalms 114 and 137, preceded by a 4-minute orchestral prelude, are the earliest works (1912-14) of what has come to be known as Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle.” This is deeply heart-felt music along the same stylistic lines as his better-known pieces from this period. German soprano Christiane Oelze offers a competent reading, while American conductor Steven Sloane leads the German orchestra (formerly known as the Berlin Radio Orchestra) in a sympathetic rendition of the orchestral prelude and accompaniment. However, a somewhat more passionate interpretation can be found on the French Timpani label (1C1149), which features the marginally more pleasing soprano Mireille Delunsch, accompanied by the Luxembourg Philharmonic, under the direction of David Shallon. That all-Bloch recording, which I recommend highly, also includes the composer’s setting of the Psalm 22, as well as several other rarely heard works.
Dating from the same period are the Three Jewish Poems. These are definitely the weakest works of the “Jewish Cycle”—extravagantly exotic, flamboyantly orchestrated, but largely pictorial symphonic tableaux. Aesthetically they share more in common with the descriptive music of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov and Respighi than with the intensely personal works—both ethnically flavored and ethnically neutral—that place Bloch among the greats of the 20th century. Again we are offered an adequate reading of the work, but one that is somewhat thin in texture and sonority and pale in expression. A heartier, more robust performance can be found on a highly recommended ASV release (CD DCA 1019), which features the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Dalia Atlas. That CD also offers two rewarding and revealing orchestral interludes from the composer’s early opera Macbeth, as well as the last of his five symphonies, the Symphony in E-flat.
The Baal Shem Suite is one of Bloch’s most frequently performed works, usually heard in its original version for violin and piano. However, it is far more effective in the composer’s own orchestration, which appeared in 1939. German violinist Antje Weithaas offers a fine reading, with some unusual phrasing that captures the music’s cantorial origins. I have nothing to criticize in this performance, but lean slightly in the direction of the recording I reviewed most recently, a BIS release (SACD-1662) that features the extraordinary violinist Vadim Gluzman in a program that also includes works of Barber and Bernstein. His playing combines absolute precision with gripping emotional intensity, and appeals to me just a bit more.
Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque (1951) exists in several versions, the original scored for viola and piano. But there is also a version for violin and piano, as well as versions for each solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. As always with Bloch, orchestral versions are preferable. The work itself is a little pallid emotionally, relative to the composer’s norm, but is quite attractive. (Most notable is a reference in both the first and third movements to Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which seems too obvious to be accidental, although I have never seen or heard mention of it anywhere.) German violist Tabea Zimmermann provides a superb reading of the solo part, resulting in a performance that is as good as any I’ve heard.