BLOCH: Three Jewish Poems. Evocations. Two Last Poems. Suite for Viola and Piano. Meditation and Processional. Suite Hébraique. Suite for Viola Solo.

BLOCH: Three Jewish Poems. Evocations. Two Last Poems. James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Alexa Still, flute. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7232-2H1 [DDD]; 59:32. Produced by Michael Fine.

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Piano. Meditation and Processional. Suite Hébraique. Suite for Viola Solo. Ernst Wallfisch, viola; Lory Wallfisch, piano. ebs 6044 [ADD]; 61:09. (Distributed by Qualiton.)

The new Koch release is a valuable and important addition to the Ernest Bloch discography, featuring music that is, at best, infrequently heard. The word “poem” is used in two of the titles, but in truth what we have here are eight of what are essentially “symphonic poems,” in three groups dating respectively from the beginning, middle, and end of the composer’s career.

I believe that this is the third recording of the Three Jewish Poems – -at least in the past forty + years. The two previous ones are both available on CD, but they are mediocre performances with poor sound quality. The music dates from 1913 — before Schelomo, theIsrael Symphony, and Bloch’s immigration to this country – -making it one of the first of his explicitly “Jewish” works. The movements are entitled “Dance,” “Rite,” and “Funeral Procession,” and are expansive and grandly rhetorical. In spite of the intense emotionalism one generally associates with Bloch — especially the two works just cited, the Jewish Poemsare more pictorial and panoramic than personally emotive, substituting exotic moods and richly colored orchestration for a tight expressive focus. Like the Suite for Viola and Piano/Orchestra, the music unfolds at a leisurely pace that may tax the concentration of some listeners.

Two Last Poems were composed in 1958 and represent Bloch’s last completed work. (Evidently, a parenthetical “Maybe” appeared after the title on the manuscript, and is presumed to be part of the title, though I wonder whether this might not have been rather a marginal personal comment stemming from a superstitious fear.) This is its first recording with orchestra, although last year Koch released a version with piano — also featuring flutist Alexa Still. The sections, which flow directly from one into the other, are entitled “Funeral Music” and “Life Again?” Here, some forty-five years after the Jewish Poems, many of the same musical characteristics are in evidence — the boldness of gesture, the exotic sense of mystery, the intensity of mood, and the naturalness and spontaneity of expression. However, in this later work, there is greater subtlety and sophistication with regard to both harmony and texture. The music is personal and introspective, at times almost diffuse, with the flutist’s role more that of a reflective psychological protagonist than of a virtuoso soloist.

The musical highpoint of the disc is the Evocations, composed during a sojourn in Switzerland in 1937, at about the same time as Voice in the Wilderness and the violin concerto. I think it is a much stronger work than either of these — one in which all the elements of mood, atmosphere, emotion, and gesture typical of Bloch’s music are realized with a tightness of focus and direction not so evident in the other compositions presented here. I have known this eighteen-minute triptych for twenty-five years and have never been able to understand its neglect. Its only previous recording is a live 1941 performance with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. This has been available for a few years on an AS Disc CD (AS 421); whether it was ever released on 78s I do not know. The music was supposedly inspired by Chinese culture and philosophy, with movements entitled “Contemplation,” “Houang Ti (God of War),” and “Renouveau (Springtime).” But this is basic Bloch, as representative as anything he wrote, and one of his best works, certainly among purely orchestral music. The second movement, a daemonic scherzo, is one of his most vivid and exciting creations, while the impressionistic atmosphere of the outer movements is enriched by a warm, rich lyricism. This work is heartily recommended to all admirers ofSchelomo and of Bloch’s distinctive mode of expression.

In her generous and generally informative annotation, which summarizes Bloch’s entire career, Alexa Still raises the hackneyed issue of Bloch’s being labeled a “Jewish composer” — why is this, is it true, what about the works that are not “Jewish” in character, etc. First, Bloch was a composer and he was Jewish; this makes him a Jewish composer. Second, he made an oft-quoted statement about wanting to express the character of the Jewish soul in his music. Third, his most popular piece is Schelomo, a work of explicitly Jewish reference, and this is the work upon which his reputation rests, in the minds of most listeners. Fourth (and here is where it gets interesting), although the overwhelming proportion of Bloch’s music is not explicitly “Jewish,” most of it is cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking (the chief exceptions being the two Concerti Grossi). That is, present throughout Bloch’s output are the bold gestures, rhapsodic rhetoric, emotional intensity, and sumptuous orchestration, all projected through a melodic-harmonic language based on modal scales heavily inflected with augmented intervals, much use of open fifths in blatant parallelism, and heavily accented rhythmic patterns. These latter features create an impression that I prefer to call “exotic,” and all listeners familiar with the film scores of Miklós Rózsa know how a generic exoticism (in his case, derived from Hungarian roots) can, through juxtaposition with other stimuli, evoke any number of different cultural associations. So when Bloch speaks of being inspired by Jewish, Javanese, Chinese, Tibetan, American Indian, or Christian elements, in works like Schelomo, the Suite for Viola and Piano/Orchestra, the Evocations, the Violin Sonata No. l, the violin concerto, and the Poéme Mystique respectively, he is using essentially one language throughout, and that is the language of Ernest Bloch — much the same language he used in his string quartets, piano concerto, and other ostensibly abstract, “secular” compositions. He was not an ethnomusicologist and never even visited most of the places he mentioned as inspirations. These “exotic” locations were really evocative stimuli that kindled images and moods in his imagination — images and moods that were key elements in his artistic psychology (as early as 1896 he was working on a Symphonie Orientale ), and are thoroughly misunderstood if taken literally. So if listeners think of Bloch’s music as “Jewish,” it is simply the understandable result of associating his particular “sound” with what is known about him.

The music is played with great conviction and considerable precision by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Sedares. However, the sound quality is a bit tubby and confined.

I hope that the audience for Bloch’s music knows what Bratsche means, because the word “viola” never appears on the exterior of this German production on the ebs (Ernest Bloch Society?) label. This is a fine disc featuring all of the composer’s viola music, including the incomplete torso of the unaccompanied suite with which he was occupied when he died in 1959. The recordings date from 1969 and may have been issued on LP — perhaps on Musical Heritage Society, but I can’t remember for sure.

Ernst Wallfisch (1920-79) was a German violist who spent his youth in Romania, where he met the woman who was to be his wife and artistic partner. They were associated with Yehudi Menuhin for many years. Ernst Wallfisch was a fine violist and these are strong, virile, assertive performances, and technically secure for the most part. They do not display quite the subtlety and refinement of Simon Rowland-Jones’s beautiful readings on Etcetera KTC-1112 (see Fanfare 15:6, p. 123), but that release omits the solo suits in favor of some piano pieces.

I’ve commented on this music often enough in the recent past to limit my remarks here to reminding the reader that the 1919 suite is also available — and more effective —  in its orchestral version, and that the Suite Hébraïque and Meditation and Processional are pleasant, lightweight pieces of similar character, composed at about the same time during 1954-51 and assembled into these two groups. 

About eight minutes of the solo suite are presented; what was to be the finale remains incomplete. The music is in the same neo-Bach manner of Bloch’s other late solo suites (three for cello, two for violin). These pieces are too dry, academic, and stylized for me, but I know that other Bloch enthusiasts hold them in great esteem.

The sound quality is very good, requiring no concessions from the listener. The anonymous program notes summarize Bloch’s stature in words with which I completely concur. “His output … shows a forceful, independent, and deeply original creative personality. His greatest works. . . are imbued with an expressive strength of sometimes barbarous, almost frightening intensity and immediacy, a broadness of concept, a boldness and a feeling for epic lyricism which all single out Bloch as one of the greatest composers of this century.”