BLOCH Poèmes d’Automne. Hiver-Printemps. Two Psalms. Psalm 22. In the Night

by Walter Simmons

BLOCH Poèmes d’Automne. Hiver-Printemps. Two Psalms. Psalm 22. In the Night – David Shallon, cond; Luxembourg PO; Mireille Delunsch (sop); Brigitte Balleys (mez); Vincent Le Texier (bar) – TIMPANI 1C1052 (63:43)

This is an important release that will fascinate and delight all admirers of the music of  Ernest Bloch. I realize that I made essentially the same statement just two years ago, in Fanfare 21:5, where I discussed ASV CD DCA 1019, which featured the first recording of Bloch’s Symphony in E-flat, and some shorter rarities—a release that made my Want List for 1998. But, I assert, this new Timpani release is even more important. Why? Because the music is almost completely unfamiliar, because it’s really good, and because (almost) all dates from the years 1904-1914, before the composer immigrated to this country—a period that has been largely a mystery to Bloch enthusiasts. (Only the Three Jewish Poems have represented these years on recordings until now.)

Let me make clear from the outset that the music on this CD is not dismissable as juvenilia. Far more mature and sophisticated than the Symphony in C-sharp minor of 1901, these works were composed by Bloch between the ages of 24 and 34. (Bloch’s career as a composer spanned such a long time, yet was so concentrated into a few relatively short periods, that the average listener does not realize how mature he was at the point at which conventional familiarity with his music begins. Furthermore, though nearly all of his 70+ works are now available on recording, no more than a handful are performed or broadcast with any regularity.)

The earliest items on the disc are a diptych of short tone poems, called Hiver-Printemps (Winter-Spring), dating from 1904-5 (about the time of Debussy’s La Mer). In his program notes, the perceptive and insightful Harry Halbreich draws a similarity between these and the two late (1918) tone poems of Lili Boulanger, Of a Sad Evening and Of a Spring Morning. Certainly the concepts are quite similar, but the music is much less so, especially in view of the much stronger stylistic affinity detectable in other works. Winter is notable in being the first music in which Bloch’s unique voice, an extension of the language of Debussy along more personal, psychological lines, is clearly evident, albeit expressed somewhat tentatively. Spring, on the other hand, is less personal, lighter in texture and emotional content, but quite lovely, working itself up to a luscious climax. Halbreich likens its “lyrical sweep” to Mahler, but I find Puccini a more apt comparison (both composers were certainly at their most active at this time). Both pieces—indeed, all the pieces on this disc except for the psalm settings—make ideal guessing material for musical parties.

Even more fascinating are the Poèmesd’Automne,four settings of texts by Béatrix Rodès, who in 1906 was Bloch’s partner in a passionate extramarital affair. Here the music is thoroughly French in style, with a far stronger similarity to Lili Boulanger and even to Chausson (Halbreich aptly indicates Florent Schmitt as well). Although the rather histrionic poems are of questionable literary merit, their character is well suited to Bloch’s intense musical style. Orchestrated in bold, lavish colors, the settings are quite sophisticated, displaying a good deal more confidence and musical maturity than the pair of tone poems described above. The second of the songs in particular, the 8-minute “L’Abri,” (“The Shelter”), is intensely dramatic—perhaps even disproportionately so, relative to the poem itself—and reaches an impressive climax. The group as a whole provides a compelling experience, adequately represented by mezzo-soprano Brigitte Balleys.

It is often the case that a number of works by a composer are designated as “minor” by default. That is, after having been neglected by performers for a period of time, for no reason other than their never having attracted anyone’s attention—perhaps because they are brief in duration, or are impractically scored, or perhaps have titles that suggest the ordinary—these works become regarded as “minor,” their neglect then becoming a self-perpetuating verdict. But in the case of many of the greatest composers, these “minor” works prove to be as distinguished in content and workmanship as their better known pieces. This situation applies to a number of the items on this new release.

For example, Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle,” which includes many of his best known works, such as the Three Jewish PoemsSchelomoBaal Shem, and the Sacred Service, began with settings of three Psalms for voice and orchestra. Composed during the years 1912-1914 (the same time as Ravel’s Two Hebraic Melodies, it is interesting to recall), the first two, Psalms 114 and 137, were intended for soprano, while the grander and somewhat more ambitious setting of Psalm 22 was indicated for baritone. All three display the composer’s familiar transformation of the language of French Impressionism into a grandiloquent rhetoric of bitter splendor, its bold gestures offset by exotic, highly perfumed harmonic textures, orchestrated with a dark brilliance. It is worth remembering that this viscerally vehement self-assertion was then quite audacious and shocking to many listeners,  at essentially the same time that the Rite of Spring precipitated such a scandal.These settings are certainly on the same level as the better known works in Bloch’s Jewish style, with many powerful and beautiful moments. Soprano Mireille Delunsch has a penetrating but liquid intensity that I find quite appealing, while baritone Vincent Le Texier’s contribution is no more than adequate.

In the Night is one of Bloch’s many nocturne-like pieces, all of which (except for those that serve as slow movements of larger works) have unfortunately fallen into the minor-by-default category described above. Originally composed for piano in 1922, In the Night had to wait until 1989 for its first representation on recording, when it appeared on István Kassai’s two-CD set of Bloch’s complete piano music on Marco Polo. (Then, in 1996, pianist Myron Silberstein included it on his knock-out debut recording along with Bloch’s Sonata, and music by Franck and Giannini [Connoisseur Society CD4208].) It is a mysterious little piece, haunted by a sense of yearning, and building to quite a torrid climax, before it drifts away into silence. Most of Bloch’s music for piano suggests that he had difficulty drawing from the instrument the mighty sonorities his music requires. That he himself realized this is indicated by the fact that eventually he orchestrated so many of his piano pieces and accompaniments. (As far as I know, neither he nor anyone else has orchestrated the Piano Sonata—what a work that would make!) Heard here for the first time in full orchestral dress, In the Night becomes a powerful five-minute mood painting, with an eloquence only partially realized in the piano version.

Bloch’s discography now awaits only two items of any significance: the full-length opera Macbeth, and Helvetia, an orchestral rhapsody that the composer wrote in honor of his homeland. Both these works have suffered from bad press; but I know them both and can assure anyone who has read this far that the former is an accomplishment of greater magnitude than is yet suspected, while the latter, though no masterpiece, is—like the analogous rhapsody America—an enjoyable, well-crafted symphonic work of modest scope.