BLOCH Concerti Grossi: Nos. 1, 2. Quartet for Strings (arr. Atlas)

BLOCH Concerti Grossi: Nos. 1, 2. Quartet for Strings (arr. Atlas) – Dalia Atlas, cond; Atlas Camerata – ASV CD DCA-1055 (70:31)

Since the Bloch Concerti Grossi are pretty well represented on recordings right now, this new release’s main claim on the attention of the serious listener is what was identified in the publicity material as Quartet for Strings, an arrangement for string orchestra of the composer’s First String Quartet. Composed in 1916, shortly after Schelomo, this ambitious, uncompromisingly serious work—nearly an hour in duration—reflects the spiritual and philosophical vision of ferocious savagery and bitter despair found in Bloch’s other works from this period, while also clearly revealing its lineage from the Franco-Belgian tradition personified by Cesar Franck. A work of such dimensions and scope might benefit, it would seem, from a grander medium of communication. So I was disappointed to discover, upon opening the package, that Israeli conductor Dalia Atlas, who is responsible for the arrangement, decided that the first two movements “make a satisfyingly ‘complete’ diptych,” and omitted the remaining two with no further explanation. This sounds an awful lot like an attempt to gloss over something based less on musicology than on some more prosaic factor. But taking it as it is, I also must report that the larger string complement doesn’t really add much to the musical experience, while sacrificing some of the demonic incisiveness of the quartet version—when played properly. On the other hand, I won’t deny that there is a certain sensual pleasure in the sometimes massive, sometimes cushy sound of the whole string section; as with the Shostakovich “Chamber Symphony,” it’s not bad to have as an occasional alternative. But to have only half of it? I don’t know … The best way to know this magniloquent, intensely dramatic work is through the performance by the Pro Arte String Quartet released on LP during the early 1980s by Laurel (LR 120). Unfortunately and inexplicably, this performance—which renders all previous or subsequent attempts superfluous—has not been reissued on compact disc, which limits access to those listeners who haven’t yet banished their turntables.

Many will probably decide whether or not to acquire this new CD based on the merits of the performances of Bloch’s two delightful Neo-Romantic glosses on the Baroque Concerto Grosso. I’m afraid that I would have to say that Atlas and her ensemble do not measure up to several of the alternative recordings available. Their performance of the Concerto Grosso No. 1 is especially unimpressive—a dull, sloppy rendition of a routine, middle-of-the-road interpretation. Surprisingly, the performance of Concerto Grosso No. 2 is far superior: better shaped in conception, and more precise in execution—a solid, vigorous reading. On the whole, however, to those seeking a recording of both Concerti Grossi I would recommend the Eastman-Rochester version (which also includes Schelomo) conducted by Howard Hanson on a Mercury reissue (432 718-2): Recorded more than four decades ago, the sound is vivid and clear, the interpretations reveal a thorough, confident grasp of the music, and the playing is dynamic and committed—and the price is modest. A worthy alternative recording features the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Agnieszka Duczmal (cpo 999 096-2), and also includes Bloch’s Four Episodes and the Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Strings. These interpretations of the Concerti Grossi are very peculiar: In general, they are played according to today’s notions of Baroque style, which sounds a little bizarre; and the conception of the first movement of No. 1 is just plain wrong-headed. But the playing of the ensemble is extremely cohesive, meticulous, and refined, making the performances hard to dismiss. It makes a good second choice. I’m afraid that leaves this new ASV out in the cold.