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CLASSICAL  April 2008

CLASSICAL April 2008

Subject:

Bloch's violin concerto

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 28 Apr 2008 13:52:21 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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Ernest Bloch

*  Violin Concerto (1938)
*  Baal Shem (3 Pictures of Chassidic Life) (1923)
*  Suite Hebraique (1952)

Zina Schiff (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Jose Serebrier.
Naxos 8.557757 Total time: 66:01

Summary for the Busy Executive: Three neglected masterworks.

Since World War II, Bloch has fallen from major Modern master to just
below B-level, at least as far as performances and recognition goes.
If anyone has heard a work, it's usually Schelomo, a fine score but not
alone, by any means.  I've always wondered why, if you like one work,
you wouldn't seek out another by the same composer, but that's apparently
the case here.  It's like a miner who, after finding a nugget, leaves
the claim.  There's a mountain of wonderful stuff: in addition to Schelomo,
another work for cello and orchestra, Voice in the Wilderness, two violin
sonatas, two suites for solo violin, a fantastic Shakespearean opera on
Macbeth, five string quartets (which Roger Sessions thought among the
best of the century), a piano concerto and a piano-and-orchestra
Konzertstueck, and a host of other works.  I can't deny there's some
pyrite among the gold (America comes to mind), but on the whole Bloch
seems to me a major figure, even though, like Vaughan Williams, he had
few significant artistic progeny.

Bloch's music takes huge artistic risks.  He's not really interested
in doing the easy thing.  Mahler made a strong early impression on him
(although his music sounds nothing like Mahler's), especially the artistic
ambition for each work.  When Bloch fails, it's not because he's dogged
it, but because his reach has exceeded his grasp.  It doesn't happen
that often, which is why it surprises me so much when it does.

Probably because of Schelomo, most listeners think of Bloch as a
"Jewish composer" -- that is, one who tries to express the Jewish "soul."
In truth, Bloch's Jewish works comprise only a small part of his output.
Inspiration comes from many places, including the American Indians and,
most notably, a Bali that seems to have lain only in the composer's
imagination (like Wallace Stevens's Paris), as well as Beethoven,
Mussorgsky, Debussy, and Palestrina.  Of the three works here, only the
two short ones can lay claim to Judaic inspiration.  In her liner notes,
violinist Zina Schiff tries to make a case for the violin concerto as
another Jewish work, despite the composer's comments to the contrary,
and to turn the work into a Schelomo for violinists.  Any similarity to
Schelomo to me comes down to the fact that the same composer wrote both.
But there's more to Bloch than Judaism alone; it's just one element in
a very rich mix.

Of all Bloch's concerted works, the violin concerto strikes me as the
most magnificent -- indeed, one of the very best for the instrument,
both musically and as a vehicle for a virtuoso.  I can't understand why
violinists aren't elbowing each other out of the way to perform it, but
as far as I know, only two star performers have recorded it: Szigeti,
who premiered it and to whom it is dedicated, and Menuhin.  Bloch, a
violinist himself good enough to have studied with Ysa=FFe, played through
the part as he composed, so that he could get a better feel for the music
under the fingers.  It took him a few years, but he completed the work
in 1938.

In three large movements, the concerto doesn't follow conventional
lines.  Bloch mastered both Baroque and classical forms but usually
doesn't follow them.  He prefers cyclic form, which he and so many others
got from Franck.  I'm usually allergic to Franck's music.  However, Bloch
avoids the clunky aspects of Franck's cyclic practice, even as he follows
Franck's basic procedure.  Bloch's cyclical elements recur naturally,
rather than (as in Franck) mechanically, as elements in a complex, organic
musical argument.  But beyond this evidence of tremendous craft, the
listener takes away primarily passion.  Noble fanfares, wild cries, great
yearning, an inexorable march -- shades of Mahler!  -- constitute the
meat of the long first movement.  The movement may run as long as some
entire concertos, but you feel no sense of drag, so sure is Bloch's
capacity for drama.  Even more impressive, out of about four or five
ideas, Bloch builds the entire concerto.  The second movement, for
example, sings tenderly on a fanfare and a lament gesture from the first
movement.  The counterpoint is both beautiful and subtle.  A piercing,
grotesque distortion of the first-movement fanfare opens the third
movement, but the violin calms the waters with a restatement of the
fanfare in its original form.  The third movement riffs mainly on that
fanfare, with recalls of earlier themes, moving among nobility to
dance-like rejoicing to anguish.  The movement builds in excitement until
the violin calms everything down with a quiet version of the fanfare,
up to the very end, when the orchestra cries out one last time.  Yet the
work doesn't seem to end on despair, but on an idea of heroic struggle.
This concerto, one of the few of the Modern period, deals with spiritual
anxiety and comes up with an adult, positive viewpoint.  Bloch skates
to the edge of sentimentality, but unlike, say Berg, never goes over.
It doesn't seek easy refuge in God, the Folk, Beauty, Despair, or
Tradition.  The only Modern concertante works I can think of off-hand
(other than Bloch's) that arrive in roughly the same neighborhood are
the Schoenberg piano concerto and the Shostakovich string concerti.  The
idioms, of course, differ, but the spiritual aims strike me as largely
the same.

The remaining works on the CD, especially compared to the concerto,
fall into the category of inspired miniatures.  Both are in three
movements.  Bloch wrote Baal Shem in the Twenties for violin and piano
and orchestrated it in 1939.  The Suite Hebraique comes from the Fifties.

Baal Shem refers to the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi
Israel ben Eliazer, known as "Baal Shem Tov" (master of the good name).
The Chassids began in Eastern Europe as a subgroup of traditional Judaism,
emphasizing mysticism and wonder-working through charismatic leadership.
They continue to the present day, splintered even further as each sliver
follows its own particular rabbi.  Bloch used at least one traditional
tune (a wedding dance in the final movement), and in others kept to the
outlines of traditional chant.  Yet whether he thought up the tunes
matters less than his treatment of them.  You can tell Bloch's innovations
simply by comparing this piece to something like Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei.
Bruch never leaves nineteenth-century exoticism, while Bloch forges a
whole new idiom, which the listening ear, for some reason, accepts as
Jewish.

Bloch's horror over World War II and the fate of European Jewry forced
him into a creative silence of roughly five years.  After the war, his
music in general became more abstract, beginning with his magnificent
second string quartet.  The Suite Hebraique stands as an exception to
the rule.  Bloch wrote it in response to a patron, Samuel Laderman
(composer Ezra's uncle), and to a request from his publisher, perhaps
hoping for another Schelomo, to "go Jewish" one more time, since those
were Bloch's more popular works.  However, the suite is itself an
abstraction of Bloch's "Jewish cycle." It's leaner and meaner than those
lush earlier works -- Schelomo, of course, but also the series of psalms
for tenor and orchestra, the "Israel" Symphony, Trois poemes juifs, Baal
Shem, Voice in the Wilderness, Visions and Prophecies, and the magnificent
Avodath Hakodesh.  Nevertheless, Bloch hasn't lost his punch.  The first
movement wouldn't have been out of place as part of a larger work, like
the violin concerto.  Also, he can still come up with a great tune, as
shown by the theme of the first-movement march, as powerful as the "vanity
of vanities" in Schelomo, and the purposeful trio of the second-movement
procession.  The finale pulls off the trick of an affirmative ending
without seeming facile.  All three of these movements come off with a
strength that belies their length.  You get the impression of a great
man working in miniature, like Mantegna.

I'm so grateful to have these things back in the recorded repertoire,
it would be churlish of me to complain.  Not that I have any real
complaints.  These are fine performances, especially of the violin
concerto, as good as or better than Menuhin and Kletzki and in much
better sound.  This is the first time I've heard the complete Baal Shem
in its orchestral robes.  I will say that Schiff's sound, though beautiful
and true, strikes me as small, and that the interpretation of the two
shorter works runs much cooler than, say, Stern and Zakin in the Baal
Shem or Hyman Bress and Jindrich Rohan in the Suite Hebraique.  Both
soloists really dig into their strings, but it's still a valid interpretation
and one startingly close to Bloch's own performances.  Serebrier shapes
a sensitive accompaniment.  Naxos has been releasing what amounts to an
unofficial Bloch series.  They should only keep going.

Steve Schwartz

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