BLOCH: Symphony in E-flat. Macbeth:Two Interludes. In Memoriam. Three Jewish Poems

BLOCH  Symphony in E-flat.  Macbeth: Two Interludes.  In Memoriam.   Three Jewish Poems – Dalia Atlas Sternberg, cond; Royal PO – ASV CD DCA 1019 (67:54)

This is the most important new Ernest Bloch release to appear in several years, offering fine performances of some very rarely heard works—including two recorded for the first time–that will expand the listener’s grasp of a body of work that is still inadequately understood by most music lovers and scholars. This release sheds some light on the matter by presenting two significant examples from the extreme corners of his compositional career.

From 1903 through 1909 Bloch worked on what proved to be his only completed opera: Macbeth. The work has enjoyed very few performances over the years (although I had the rare good fortune to attend a production at the Juilliard School in 1973). Approaching the opera from a point of greater familiarity with its historical predecessors than with Bloch’s own body of work, most commentators have dismissed Macbeth as an immature work, hearing in it little more than echoes of Wagner, Mussorgsky, Strauss, and Debussy. As is so often the case with musical scholarship, these observations have been absorbed and reported by others who have no first-hand knowledge themselves, and have eventually hardened into a critical consensus. However, anyone who truly knows Bloch’s music and hears Macbeth — even just the two interludes found on this disc — will recognize the composer’s mature language — that is, the language of his early maturity, which is, after all, the period from which all his best-known music derives (more on this later) — but without any overt or conscious Jewish content. This gives Macbeth — omitting from this discussion the issue of its quality as an operatic work—considerable musicological significance for the Bloch scholar, as it may be viewed as a “baseline” language shaped before the conscious infusion of Jewish elements. No more than, say, Schelomo, the music reflects an amalgamation of Wagnerian/Straussian extravagance and grandeur with opulently expanded triadic harmony derived from Franck, along with a propensity for exotic figurations loosely reminiscent of Debussy. But, in Macbeth asin Schelomo, these influences are thoroughly digested and integrated into a powerful, coherent, and boldly individual voice that is unmistakable as Bloch’s, literally from the first measure.

Macbeth is not completely unknown to the discophile. There was at one time a recording in which L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande featured the two interludes, under the direction of Pierre Colombo; an extensive series of excerpts from the opera was also available with the same orchestra accompanying some distinguished soloists, this time conducted by Ernest Ansermet. But these recordings are quite old and enjoyed very limited circulation. Thus the re-appearance of these two orchestral interludes — some 13 minutes of music — will be a new and exciting discovery for most listeners, offering the passion and grandeur found in Bloch’s most beloved works.  Perhaps one day we will hear the entire opera on recording.

Three Jewish Poems, composed in 1913, is the first installment of Bloch’s oft-discussed “Jewish Cycle,” those ten or so works in which he attempted to express something of what he felt as the essence of the “Jewish soul.”  Although its three sections average only about eight minutes each, the suite has a loose, sprawling effect, exemplifying the excesses of Bloch’s early period at their most blatant. Added to the torrid post-romantic crucible described above are modal melodies and melismas redolent of the eastern Mediterranean, creating a vividly picturesque panorama of exotic images. (For a more elaborate discussion of the Jewish character of Bloch’s music, see Fanfare 18:1.) Within the next three years, the Israel Symphonyand Schelomo appeared–both far more substantive, tightly focused, and effective works. Nevertheless, conductor Atlas-Sternberg manages to whip up enough intensity to make this the most convincing of the handful of performances of Three Jewish Poems I have heard.

From the other end of Bloch’s compositional career comes the Symphony in E-flat, the last of the five works Bloch called “symphonies,” although for some reason he chose not to number them. These works, beginning with the 1901 Symphony in C-sharp minor (which truly is barely recognizable as a work of Bloch), span a period of 54 years, although they were far from evenly spaced throughout his career. When one considers Bloch’s long worklife, it is important to remember its unusual layout: More than two-thirds of his entire output were written during two very productive periods, separated from each other by 20 years: 21 works date from the years 1922-25, when he served as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and 28 from 1944-59, the years of his retirement in Oregon. From this latter period come three of the symphonies, four string quartets, and quite a few other works that are still barely known, yet truly define much of his identity as a composer. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Bloch’s most widely-performed works, which today are Schelomo, the Sacred Service, the Concerto Grosso No. 1, and Baal Shem, were all composed before the mid-1930s, creating an impression of his work that is somewhat misleading.

The two periods do share in common their harmonic language: a rich and varied syntax anchored in tonality and fundamentally triadic, but expanded to embrace not only the impressionistic extensions to the ninth and eleventh in their various alterations, but also quartal harmony and a chromatic freedom that extended to atonality and twelve-tone (though not serial) usage, not to mention—at the other extreme—pure diatonic and pentatonic modality. Integrating this vast harmonic vocabulary into organic coherence, Bloch achieved an extraordinary breadth and versatility of expression. It is this response to the celebrated “crisis of tonality” that faced composers during the first two decades of this century that is Bloch’s greatest contribution, creating a form of expressionism that served as an influential model for some of the most talented figures of the following generation, and placed him alongside Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky as one of the most significant composers of his time.

However, if Bloch’s music from the 1950s employed much the same harmonic language as his music from the ‘20s, other aspects of the expression are quite different. The works from the ‘20s vacillate between extravagant emotional extremes; they are rhetorical, rhapsodic, and highly perfumed with exotic coloration, while based on the classical forms as adapted by the Franck school. The works of the ‘50s, on the other hand, are more contained emotionally, more regular in phraseology, and more concise formally, with self-generated rather than classical designs. While during the 1920s Bloch gave voice to his ecstatic yet tormented emotional life, during the ‘50s he was reflecting and commenting from a rather grim, sometimes resigned or ironic—but relatively detached–perspective on the human condition. Understandably, these later works are less vivid, less immediate, and less arresting than many of the earlier ones, but they reveal the evolution and maturation of an eloquent artistic voice whose scope has yet to be fully grasped. All these qualities are clearly evident in the Symphony in E-flat, presented here in its first commercial recording. Although a number of important pieces of chamber music were still to follow, this four-movement symphony proved to be Bloch’s last large orchestral work.

In the context of this discussion (and of this disc), the other premiere recording — the four-minute In Memoriam — may seem no more than a trifle. Composed in 1952 in memory of a pianist acquaintance, it is, however, a touching, heartfelt elegy.

Dalia Atlas Sternberg is an Israeli conductor of some accomplishment, according to the program booklet, although her name is new to me. Her contribution to this recording is worthy of considerable praise, helping to make this new release indispensable to all admirers of Bloch’s music.