BLOCH: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Suite Symphonique. Poems of the Sea.

BLOCH: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Suite Symphonique. Poems of the Sea. Sakari Oramo conducting the Malmo Symphony Orchestra; Oleh Krysa, violin. BIS CD-639 [DDD]; 72:28. Produced by Robert Suff

This recent release will be interesting to Bloch enthusiasts, filling some important gaps in the composer’s discography, though none of the works represents him at his best. The performance of Suite Svmphonique is not its first commercial recording, as a rendition by the Portland Youth Orchestra under Jacob Avshalomov has been in the CRI catalog for a number of years. But this new Finnish performance is so superior that the work itself makes an altogether different impression — and I am usually able to hear the quality of a piece through a poor performance. But the Portland performance had left me feeling that this was quite a mediocre piece; it sounds far more convincing here. The three-movement work was composed in 1944, after a long creative hiatus, and shortly before the appearance of the masterful String Quartet No. 2. It is a thoroughly enjoyable example of Bloch’s personal, rather romanticized treatment of Baroque stylistic elements, the faster portions somewhat resembling the Concerto Grosso No. 2. The first movement suggests a “French Overture,” with a solemn, majestic opening that is quite beautiful, recalling moments from the Sacred Service. The allegro giocosothat follows is a colorful and dramatic example of the composer’s familiar “grotesque” manner. The second movement, a passacaglia, has been compared by some to Bach’s works in that genre, but I feel a stronger association with the rather squared-off chaconne from Gustav Holst’s 1909 Suite No. 1 for band, although the Bloch is considerably more elaborate. Nevertheless, the second movement doesn’t really sustain the level of the first, meandering around for quite a while before arriving at a peroration so grand and triumphant that the concluding allegro moltoseems quite anticlimactic. Yet on its own, this finale is a perfectly acceptable example of Bloch’s neo-Baroque rhythmic patterning, augmented by rich orchestration and enigmatic dies irae messages. Although this Malmo rendition is a vast improvement over the Portland Youth performance, there is still room for a fuller, more refined realization of the work. Both the allegro giocoso of the first movement, and the finale are a little lacklustre, for example, and could benefit from more dynamic energy.

Bloch’s Poems of the Sea, dating from his Cleveland period, are best known as piano pieces — but are not terribly well known at that. In general, Bloch’s writing for the piano is remarkably ungraceful in its deployment of the instrument’s sonorous resources; his distinctive misterioso atmospheres are usually created by resorting to figurations that are naturally suited to the string instruments, but tend to be ineffective on the piano. Even the great 1935 Piano Sonata makes its powerful impact in spite of Bloch’s clumsy treatment of the instrument. It is no accident that so many of his works originally scored for the piano (e.g. Viola Suite, Suite Hebraique, Baal Shem, et al. were promptly offered in alternate orchestral versions, which are invariably preferable. (I know of no orchestration of the Piano Sonata, but one can only imagine how much more effective it might be. I myself have known and played the Poems of the Sea for about 35 years, enjoying them but attributing very little significance to them. Here is the first recording of an orchestral arrangement Bloch made in 1924, two years after their composition, and the difference in stature is remarkable Together, they comprise an imposing 13-minute suite of vividly picturesque tone poems flavored with the exotic tinge characteristic of the composer’s Cleveland years. The suite ends with a five-minute tempest that culminates in a climax whose vehemence is perhaps disproportionate to the scope of the work as a whole. Nevertheless, this version of the Poems is most welcome.

The disc also features a performance of Bloch’s Violin Concerto, a work that has enlisted many partisans, although I have always found its form too episodic, loose-limbed, and lacking in rhythmic drive to hold my concentration from beginning to end. It was composed in 1938, two years after Voice in the Wilderness. Like it, the Violin Concerto is discursive and rhapsodic, embracing a wide variety of Bloch’s characteristically intoxicating, atmospheric mood-states, though here the overall tone is somewhat brighter, sunnier, and gentler than the composer’s norm. Like most of Bloch’s major works, the concerto uses cyclical devices, employing a unifying motto that is supposedly of Amerindian origin. (Here I direct the reader to my discussion of the alleged Jewishness or lack thereof inherent in Bloch’s language, which appeared in Fanfare 18:1, p. 149. What I would love to hear is a “concerto” created by orchestrating Bloch’s first Violin Sonata, a much more formally and expressively focused work than the later concerto. However, I am not aware of any such orchestration having been done.

Bloch’s Violin Concerto has been recorded a number of times. Polish-Ukrainian violinist Oleh Krysa’s reading is probably the best modern recording currently available on CD — technically assured and nicely polished. But I find the approach taken by him and conductor Oramo too gentle and reserved-indeed, a trifle pallid. Amore intense, ferocious approach holds this discursive work together more effectively. I wish that Laurel would reissue onto compact disc Mischa Lefkowitz’s fiery yet precise 1985 rendition with the London Philharmonic.