BLOCH Macbeth

BLOCH Macbeth – Friedemann Layer (cond); Jean-Philippe Lafont (Macbeth); Markella Hatziano (Lady Macbeth); Jean-Philippe Marlière (Macduff); Jacque Trussel (Banquo); Christer Bladin (Duncan); Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon Ch, PO – ACTES SUD AT-34100[ADD] (2 CDs: 2:23; Broadcast 7/26/97)

This new release is of the greatest importance to all admirers of the music of Ernest Bloch, because with the appearance of this—the most ambitious work of his early creative period—all of the composer’s music has now been documented on recordings, and most of it is currently available. Although Macbeth—which is mentioned in passing far more often than it is discussed substantively—is an early work, predating all the music on which Bloch’s reputation is based, including the works of explicitly Jewish reference, it is no juvenilia. It is a full-length, three-act opera, of two and a half hours duration, begun in 1904, when the composer was 24, and completed when he was 29. Its premiere, by the Paris Opéra Comique in 1910, was well received by both audience and critics. Among its earliest advocates were Nadia Boulanger and Romain Rolland.

Here is some background: In 1896, when Bloch was a teenager in Brussels, studying violin and composition, he became acquainted with Eugene Ysaÿe, who was impressed by the youth’s creative gifts and accepted him into his circle of musical intimates. Ysaÿe introduced Bloch to the latest and most significant developments in French music, kindling an enthusiasm in the young composer for the music of Claude Debussy, who was quite a controversial figure at the time. Indeed, the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, several years later in 1902, was not especially successful. (Bloch was to meet Debussy in 1903, after which the two reportedly spent some considerable time together.)

While back home in Geneva in 1901, Bloch had also become acquainted with the Swiss-Jewish poet Edmund Fleg, who was six years older than the young composer. (Fleg later became a leader of the “Jewish Renaissance” movement in France, and was probably a chief influence in Bloch’s decision to embrace his heritage as a source of spiritual inspiration.) The two became good friends and developed a plan to write an opera together. After much discussion they decided on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Fleg presented Bloch with a complete libretto in 1904, and Bloch completed the vocal score of the opera in 1906. Spending the next few years in efforts to arrange for the opera’s production, he did not actually complete the orchestral score until 1909. Initially the work was brought to the attention of Andre Messager, who had conducted the premiere of Pelléas, but he found the consistently gloomy tone of the opera unappealing. However, other acquaintances were more enthusiastic about the work, and succeeded in persuading Albert Carré, director of the Opéra Comique, to accept Macbeth for production in 1910.

Despite the favorable response to the work throughout that season, it was dropped from the repertoire the following year, for reasons described as “political” in nature. Macbeth was not performed again until 1938, when it was produced in Naples, during a period when Bloch’s music was enjoying extraordinary popularity in Italy. The opera’s American premiere did not take place until 1960, when it was mounted at the University of California at Berkeley, the year after the composer’s death.

In Macbeth Bloch attempted to combine Wagner’s system of leitmotifs with the directness and realism of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, using a harmonic language strongly indebted to Debussy. (One might observe that these are the sources of what became—as the power of his own musical personality emerged with his maturity—Bloch’s own individual musical language, although I would add that such an analysis overlooks the importance of Cesar Franck, who was in many ways—via Ysaÿe—Bloch’s most significant musico-aesthetic antecedent.) However, Bloch’s treatment of leitmotifs in Macbeth focused on the characters’ inner dynamics—psychological and emotional factors—rather than on their behavior.

Listeners whose sense of Bloch’s aesthetic identity is based on their familiarity with those of his works associated with Judaism will be surprised to discover how close the musical language of Macbeth is to that of Schelomo, for example. This is already apparent from the two orchestral interludes that have enjoyed some modest representation on recording—most recently on a marvelous ASV release (CD DCA 1019), reviewed enthusiastically by both Martin Anderson and me in Fanfare 21:5 (and included on my 1998 Want List).

However, I can no longer postpone some serious reservations I have been nursing about Macbeth for nearly thirty years: Those listeners—and my experience tells me that it is a large proportion—who listen to opera chiefly for its musical highpoints are likely to be quite disappointed. This is because—aside from the two dramatic and compelling orchestral interludes—there are very few passages that loom as autonomous, coherent musical entities. That is, the music is tightly wedded to the text, presented through a declamation that does not permit detours for the purpose of lyrical elaboration of the emotional moment. It is hard to think of a single opera from the past hundred years that has won the affection of listeners without providing representative moments that fuse together the dramatic, emotional, and musical components of the proceedings at key points throughout the work—and I say this as a great enthusiast of 20th-century opera. The problem is intensified for the English-speaking listener to this production by the fact that the opera is sung in French, and that the program notes, synopsis, and libretto are all presented in French only.

Now one may certainly respond that French is the language in which the opera was written, it is hardly an esoteric tongue, and that the story of Macbeth should be familiar to any educated listener. This is all true. And those cultivated, multilingual listeners who renew their familiarity with Shakespeare’s play, and then sit down with libretto in hand to immerse themselves in this recording are likely to emerge with the satisfaction of having discovered an important and rewarding work that reflects the confluence of a remarkable number of notable musico-historical threads. Nevertheless, I think that Actes Sud has made a serious misjudgment in producing this otherwise handsome package without providing translations of the notes and the libretto. I’m afraid that this recording will find itself spending a lot of time on the shelves of most collections.

Bloch’s Macbeth is a work of considerable artistic maturity and strong craftsmanship. There are no lapses in taste or serious miscalculations, given the approach the composer chose to follow—and, one might add, it is an approach considered by many to be the aesthetic “high road” in operatic composition. Furthermore, the performance captured on this recording is excellent, with fine vocal soloists and solid orchestral playing. The sound of the recording is superb as well, despite the fact that it was taken from an actual performance. In conclusion, this release is indispensable to both the Bloch aficionado and the opera specialist. But most devotees of post-Romanticism and more casual admirers of Bloch’s music will be happy enough with the two orchestral interludes found on the ASV disc mentioned earlier.