BLOCH Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra. VERESS Four Transylvanian Dances. BRUN Symphony No. 2 – Dmitrij Kitajenko, cond; Berne SO; Stanley Clark (tbn)1 – MUSICA HELVETICA MH CD 86.2 (76:40)
BLOCH Visions and Prophecies. Cello Suite No. 1. JUON Cello Sonata No. 2. Fairy Tale. Bagatelle. Humoresque. HUBER Cello Sonata No. 4 – Esther Nyffenegger (vc); Desmond Wright (pn) – MUSICA HELVETICA MH CD 98.2 (72:16)
These two releases, recently made available in this country by Records International (PO Box 343, Bridgewater, CT 06752), are selections from a series of recordings produced under the auspices of Swiss Radio to highlight the contributions of Swiss composers and musicians. As these two discs indicate, figures who emigrated from Switzerland (like Bloch) are included, as are those (like Veress, Juon, and conductor Kitajenko) who were born elsewhere, but immigrated to the country.
Listening to the sampling of music offered here, one is struck by the sense of moderation one associates with Switzerland, but also by a sense of the ordinary, of mediocrity, perhaps—not attributable to any lack of compositional craftsmanship, but rather to the absence of a strong sense of character, as well as to the absence of really significant musical content. Of course, the pieces by Ernest Bloch are notable exceptions to this general impression: his examples loom with a power and urgency that seem all the more striking by their juxtaposition alongside the timid efforts of the others. Interestingly, according to the program notes, Bloch’s music is rarely performed in Switzerland, although, internationally, he is the most frequently performed composer of Swiss birth. (The same commentary includes the rather bizarre assertion that “in the United States [Bloch] is perhaps even better known as a photographer than as a composer.”)
Bloch’s Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra (1954) is the fourth of the five works that he denoted as “symphonies,” and belongs to that 40% of his output composed in Oregon during the last decade of his life. It is a powerful work in the international abstract expressionistic manner that was his mature mode of expression. Yet few if any of Bloch’s works from this incredibly fecund period have attained a strong foothold in the repertoire or in the consciousness of the public. Their frequent tendency to sound merely grim and gray, rather than powerful and eloquent, is partly attributable to their somewhat less strongly characterized thematic material, which might otherwise serve as a “hook” for the audience. But a more significant factor is the failure of performers to discern and project the intensity imbued within the music itself. This is apparent in the Trombone Symphony, which is usually presented, despite the implications of the title, as a solo vehicle—albeit one without a strongly virtuosic focus—with a rather busily murky orchestral accompaniment. However, attentive listening reveals that this “accompaniment” is rather teeming with dynamic activity that often belongs in the foreground, in vital involvement with the solo element, which should reflect emotional urgency—not just precision and polish. The performance at hand, featuring Canadian trombonist Stanley Clark, is no more successful in this regard than most, though it is adequate in other respects. However, one should add that no recorded performance, not even Christian Lindberg’s with the Swedish Radio Orchestra (BIS CD538)—the frontrunner at this point–has yet brought this work successfully to consummation. (For an illustration of what could be achieved along these lines, the reader is referred to Laurel LR-848CD, which offers definitive performances of Bloch’s two piano quintets, performed by Howard Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet. Listen to their reading of the Quintet No. 2, a 1957 work of comparable aesthetic import to the Trombone Symphony.)
The chamber music disc features similarly adequate, though not outstanding, renditions of two other works of Bloch. Desmond Wright plays Visions and Prophecies, a version for piano solo of the orchestral expositions from the 1936 work for cello and orchestra, Voice in the Wilderness. Although the ten-minute abridgement, minus the cello commentaries (which tend to ramble a bit), is a worthwhile entry in the composer’s rather small solo piano output, Wright’s rendition is a little cold and dry. I would direct the interested listener to István Kassai’s excellent comprehensive survey of Bloch’s piano music on Marco Polo (8.223288-9). Visions and Prophecies appears on Volume 2.
Bloch’s solo suites for string instruments are among his very last compositions. I realize that I am in the minority among Bloch specialists in finding these neo-Bach exercises to be dry, uninspired, and undistinguished. Bach’s ability to create an entire expressive universe with a single instrument is simply not approached by other composers, though they may be major figures otherwise. Esther Nyffenegger offers an acceptable reading of the Cello Suite No. 1. (Coincidentally, the Laurel disc cited two paragraphs above features a more passionate rendition of this same work by cellist Parry Karp.)
The remainder of the repertoire on these discs is considerably more obscure. Sándor Veress was a composer and musicologist born in Hungary—an exact contemporary of Miklós Rózsa, and a student of both Bartók and Kodály. He moved to Switzerland in 1949, spending the second half of his life living and working in Berne. Four Transylvanian Dances were composed for string orchestra during the 1940s, and comprise rather sophisticated treatments of original thematic material rooted in Hungarian folk melos. The music, which does not resemble comparable works by his two esteemed teachers, is interesting enough, though not particularly compelling.
Fritz Brun (1878-1959) was an almost exact contemporary of Bloch, a close friend of both Othmar Schoeck and the writer Hermann Hesse, and conductor of the Berne Symphony Orchestra for more than thirty years. He composed some ten symphonies; the second—heard here—is a product of his early maturity, written in 1911. The influence of Brahms pervades the tone, style, and even the actual motifs and gestures of this leisurely work in four movements, although the finale relaxes into a frolicsome folksiness that Brahms would never have allowed into a symphony.
Paul Juon (1872-1940), a near-contemporary of Rachmaninoff, was born in Moscow, studying there and in Berlin. He is represented here by a fairly ambitious cello sonata, along with some pretty salon trifles. The sonata, composed around 1912, exhibits the aforementioned moderation of tone and mood, though a distinctive character is not altogether missing. The salon pieces call Tchaikovsky to mind, while Brahms and Reger seem to be the chief influences in the sonata. The most striking aspect of this work is the remarkably expanded chromatic harmony that appears in the first movement.
Hans Huber (1852-1921) was a prolific near-contemporary of Gabriel Fauré, whose music Huber’s resembles not at all. His Fourth Cello Sonata seems to have been composed shortly after the turn of the century, and displays the same moderation of temperament noted in the music of Brun and Juon. As in the Juon sonata, the first movement of the Huber is the most striking, exhibiting a passionate late-romantic sweep. But the subsequent movements make a rather quick descent into banality.
Cellist Nyffenegger’s articulation seems a little sluggish, and her tone seems to lack projection, at least as heard on this recording. Desmond Wright provides capable support on the piano. On the orchestral disc, taken from concert performances, the Berne Symphony Orchestra plays competently and sympathetically under Russian-born Kitajenko.
In summary, these two discs will be of greatest value to those with an interest in the history of Swiss music. Bloch enthusiasts are advised to pursue his works in other compilations.