BLOCH: America–an Epic Rhapsody; Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1, No. 2, “Poeme Mystique”; Baal Shem; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra; works by SEREBRIER, MARTIN, SANDSTROM, SEROCKI.

by Walter Simmons



BLOCH: America — an Epic Rhapsody. Leopold Stokowski conducting the Symphony of the Air. VANGUARD CLASSICS OVC-8014 [DDD]; 53:13. Produced by Seymour Solomon

BLOCH: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1, No. 2, “Poeme Mystique”; Baal Shem. Leonard Friedman, violin; Allan Schiller, piano. ASV CD-DCA-714 [DDD]; 68:55. Produced by James Burnett.

BLOCH: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Baal Shem. SEREBRIER: Poema Elegiaco; Momento Psicologico. Michael Guttman, violin\l/; Jose Serebrier conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. ASV CD-DCA-785 [DDD]; 66:56. Produced by Brian B Culverhouse.

BLOCH: Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra. MARTIN: Ballade for Trombone and Orchestra. SANDSTROM: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, “Motorbike Concerto”. SEROCKI: Concerto for Trombone and OrchestraChristian Lindberg, trombone; Leif Segerstam conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. BIS CD-538 [DDD]; 73:44. Produced by Robert Suff and Robert von Bahr

Quite a few recordings of music by Ernest Bloch have arrived on the scene during recent weeks. While none of those noted here is indispensable, they do offer the opportunity to fill in some gaps in one’s collection.

Stokowski’s reading of Bloch’s America rhapsody originally appeared in 1960 and, as far as I know, it is the only recording made of this problematical work. The expansive, 50-minute composition was written in 1926, as an expression of affection and gratitude for his recently adopted homeland, and it was awarded an important prize sponsored by Musical America. Interestingly, Stokowski was one of the judges. Its three movements feature Bloch’s musical reflections on three historical epochs: the Pilgrim period, the Civil War, and what was then “the present.” The work is beautifully scored, intricately structured, and skillfully developed, integrating American tunes of various kinds into the rich, post-romantic fabric. It is unified by a single motif that metamorphoses into a culminating hymn (with words) that Bloch intended for the audience to sing. It is one of those “The work is not programmatic, but…”-type pieces, with detailed descriptive indications throughout the score. Despite the discomfort so many composers and commentators have with referential music, there is no reason for this factor in itself to be a problem, as long as the work is autonomously structured, which Americadefinitely is. The chief problem is a matter of taste: fervent, grandiose expressions of nationalistic sentiments are hard for many of today’s listeners to swallow — myself included — and one’s response to America is likely to depend on one’s tolerance for this sort of thing. It may be helpful to bear in mind that Bloch had been living in this country for barely a decade when he composed the work, so his enthusiasm for his adopted homeland did not really have time to become complicated by cynicism or disillusionment.

Stokowski’s performance, with the erstwhile NBC Symphony, is superb, as is the quality of the recording. An added bonus is the inclusion of a brief spoken commentary on the work by Bloch himself, recorded toward the end of his life.

Bloch’s two magnificent violin sonatas represent opposite poles with regard to both formal approach and metaphysical vision: No. 1 is classically structured, if adapted to the post-romantic syntax, and is brutally pessimistic in content; No. 2, thoroughly rhapsodic in form, expresses a fervent spiritual faith. Both sonatas have been well served on recordings during the past decade, so this new ASV release, featuring veteran English violinist Leonard Friedman and his partner Allan Schiller, faces some stiff competition. Most formidable are the Weilerstein Duo, whose two-disc set on Arabesque (see Fanfare 13:2) appeared on my Want List for 1989 and purports to contain all of Bloch’s violin music, and the Galperine/Aguessy duo, who recorded the sonatas on ADDA (see Fanfare 12:3). Friedman and Schiller take a broadly vehement, grandly impassioned approach to the sonatas (and to Baal Shem as well) that goes with the grain of the music. By contrast, both aforementioned recordings attempt to tighten up the extravagant rhetoric of the music through faster tempos and terser phrasing. But Friedman and Schiller have mastered the music well enough technically and interpretively to succeed in their more expansive manner, despite occasional lapses of intonation. A spacious recording ambience enhances their reading. An unfortunate blemish in the “Poeme Mystique” is an obvious wrong note (at one measure after [24]). This is interesting because the Galperine/Aguessy performance of the same work is also marred by an obvious wrong note — though at a different point. Both appear to be misreadings, rather than finger slips. In summary, I would recommend the Weilerstein set on Arabesque as the best recording. (Of course each sonata is on a different CD, although the other pieces are definitely worth having.) Listeners who want both sonatas on one CD might consider this new ASV release as an alternative to the ADDA disc

Bloch’s Violin Concerto was composed during the mid-1930s and is a work of his mature, mainstream idiom. However, it is a relatively weak manifestation of that idiom, far looser and more diffuse than either sonata. It is constructed around an almost-pentatonic motif that is supposedly of Native American origin, but sounds as much like the familiar Hebraic distillation characteristic of Bloch as anything else. This motif is treated in a rather obvious cyclical manner. In addition to the heavy-handed treatment of the main motif, the concerto is filled out by a great deal of empty virtuoso noodling and excessive use of sequences. As a result, the work does not really hold one’s attention.

The concerto is presented on another ASV disc, this one featuring the young Belgian violinist Michael Guttman. He is a creditable performer, but not at the level of mastery displayed by Leonard Friedman on the disc discussed above. Laurel is planning to reissue its excellent recording with violinist Mischa Lefkowitz (see Fanfare 9:5) on CD in the near future; that one is probably worth waiting for. On the other hand, the Guttman disc features what I believe is the only currently available recording of Baal Shem with orchestral accompaniment. Guttman’s performance lacks assurance refinement and the accomanimental aspect of the work is quite subordinate in importance, so this distinction will mean more to some than others.

The Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra is the fourth of Bloch’s five symphonies and, like its predecessor and successor, dates from the 1950s, the fecund final decade of the composer’s life. In this work the trombone plays a more oratorical than virtuosic role. As in the Violin Concerto, the main motif is treated a little too obviously, although, as a whole, the symphony makes a powerful statement. The Swedish Christian Lindberg is described as history’s first full-time trombone soloist and he offers the finest, most meticulously phrased performance of the work I have ever heard.

Lindberg’s Bis disc also contains music by Martin, Serocki, and Sandstrom. Frank Martin’s 1940 Ballade is an excellent and highly attractive example of the composer’s cool, darkly transparent idiom. The work is not unfamiliar to record collectors, but Lindberg offers a superb, deeply burnished performance. Kazimierz Serocki (1922-1981) began as a boxer before becoming a composer (surely a unique distinction). He later associated himself with the Warsaw avant-gardists, but his four-movement Trombone Concerto dates from 1952, preceding that stage of his career. Inhabiting a stylistic field somewhat in the neighborhood of Prokofiev, the work has an infectious appeal, with a truly nifty first movement and a deeply felt slow movement. The two concluding movements are more routine. Jan Sandstrom’s “Motorbike” Concerto is the oddest work on the disc. Sandstrom, still in his thirties, wrote his concerto specifically for Lindberg, after hearing him imitate the sound of a motorcycle on his trombone. So Sandstrom structured his piece around the conceit of a world-traveler, visiting a variety of places on motorcycle. It is full of gimmicky effects and, needless to say, lots of fluttertonguing. No doubt the piece is difficult to play and something of a tour de force for Lindberg, but I had trouble staying awake for a second listening.

The Guttman/ASV disc also contains two short pieces by conductor Jose Serebrier, whose music has sometimes impressed me in the past. Poema Elegiaco and Momento Psicologico both date from the 1950s and are stark, somber, explosive pieces quite reminiscent of Shostakovich in his long slow movements, but they both lack thematic character.