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CLASSICAL  January 2010

CLASSICAL January 2010

Subject:

Not Schelomo

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Sat, 23 Jan 2010 20:32:54 -0800

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text/plain

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Ernest Bloch
Orchestral Music

*  4 Episodes
*  2 Poems
*  Concertino
*  Suite modale

Noam Buchman, flute
Yuri Gandelsman, viola
Soloists of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Slovak Radio Symphony
Atlas Camerata Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
Naxos 8.570258 Total Time: 52:29

Summary for the Busy Executive: Mighty minis.

I used to complain that Ernest Bloch's music hadn't gotten the attention
it deserved.  In the concert hall and the academic journal, it remains
true.  Thank the gods for CDs.  Not only can you get umpty-tumpty versions
of Schelomo, with just about any star cellist you care to name, but you
can choose from among seven performances of the Piano Quintet #2.  For
a long time, there was no recording of this piece.  Recording labels are
now delving into Bloch's catalog, hauling back both major and minor
works.

The program here, with one exception, doesn't represent top-flight Bloch,
but the contents of Bloch's second drawer is miles beyond that of most
composers' first.  Dalia Atlas has given us a fine picture of Bloch
early, middle, and late.  All the works here typify their period.

The earliest pieces, the 2 Poems (perhaps better known as Hiver-Printemps),
come from 1905, after Bloch had soaked up Impressionism in Paris.  Yet
even here, Bloch sounds like no other impressionist, even though he uses
some of the same devices.  Impressionism as the French practiced it was
primarily a matter of the beauty of the surface.  Bloch (who had earlier
succumbed to the influences of Mahler and Richard Strauss) aims at
portraying psychological states.  One doesn't get Vivaldi's sting of the
snowflakes or Debussy's sea wind, but a meditation on gloom - in Robert
Frost's phrase, inner rather than outer weather.

The 4 Episodes for chamber ensemble appeared in 1926 and although not
as ambitious as the two violin sonatas (1920, 1924) or the first piano
quintet (1923), they all share an idiom which one might describe as
"barbaric." Just in case you wondered, this is not one of Bloch's "Jewish"
works.  Instead, Bloch apparently gets his inspiration from the Far East
- China and Bali - which bears some of the same relation to his art as
Paris does for Wallace Stevens's poetry.  Compared to any of the other
pieces, not to mention Schelomo, the 4 Episodes ("Humoresque macabre,"
"Obsession," "Calm," and "Chinese") come off as a kind of busman's
holiday, similar in scale to the Concerto Grosso #1 (1925).

The "Humoresque macabre" depicts a state of mind that attracted Bloch
throughout his life - the grotesque and the fantastic, the opposite of
what we normally think of his music.  It apparently amused him, and he
would pronounce the very word "grotesque" with relish and a grin. It
opens with a mordant theme in the bass, and this becomes important in
later episodes.  Bloch liked to introduce cyclic principles, especially
in his larger works.  "Obsession," like Holst's "In the Streets of Ouled
Nails" from Beni Mora, takes a riff (in 7+4, I think) and worries it
like a dog gnawing a bone.  This also belongs to Bloch's grotesquerie.
Bloch varies the orchestration and even builds in a dynamic structure
by methodically adding and subtracting instruments.  "Calm" provides a
pastoral respite. It opens serenely, with a slowly-moving chordal ostinato
over which solo winds sing.  In mood, it resembles the pastoral movements
in the String Quartet #1 and the first Concerto Grosso.  The finale,
"Chinese," evokes the Chinese theater, which Bloch, long resident in San
Francisco, greatly admired.  From the testimony of the music, he seems
to have been drawn not only to the bright colors and the dancing, but
to its exotic and macabre elements as well, especially since the opening
theme of the "Humoresque" takes over a good deal of the movement.

The Concertino for flute and viola comes from 1948.  Bloch had sunk
into a depression and a creative stop during the war years, as news
of European Jewry began to reach the outside world.  The Third Reich's
defeat freed Bloch up again, but his music changed.  It became more
austere, more polyphonically contrapuntal, and he focused on concentrated
forms - chamber music and Konzertstucke, for example.  Even his epic
mode, though it still packed a punch, became terser. The Concertino is
the shortest piece in the program, and one could argue for it as the
best.  The interplay between soloists and between soloists and orchestra
dazzles.  Furthermore, Bloch's invention fires on all cylinders, one
penetrating idea shooting out after another.  My only complaint - if you
could call it that - is that it doesn't go on longer.  Other than that,
a gem, both brilliant and hard.  The first movement updates the Baroque,
without resorting to the obvious tropes - partaking of the energy of
Bach and Vivaldi.  The second provides a surprising Romantic take on the
slow instrumental arias of Bach, although the melodies and harmonies
belong to Bloch.  The Concertino with a "devil of a fugato," to paraphrase
Elgar.

Bloch wrote the Suite modale in 1956 in admiration of American flutist
Elaine Schaffer, who died way too young.  The composition, like the Suite
hebraique of 1951, afforded Bloch the opportunity of re-visiting his
early "orientalism." Again, Bloch reins in his epic excesses and
deliberately restricts his scale.  This discipline results in a work of
great charm, and one which several flute virtuosi have taken up in the
past twenty years - not in the concert hall, of course, but on disc.
The first movement moves languidly: "Stay me with flagons.  Comfort me
with apples, for I am sick of love." The second, in the same tempo,
assumes a less sensuous tone. It reminds me of an old man looking over
his past life with both affection and regret.  The third movement dances
a lively gigue, interrupted by a contemplative middle, reminiscent of
the previous movement.  The finale depicts two moods: slow, bittersweet
meditation and a fast, joyous song.  These two ideas fade in and out of
prominence, with the slow music from the second movement (cyclic principles
again) closing out the Suite.

Dalia Atlas has amassed quite a respectable Bloch discography.  Some
of her recordings I've liked better than others, but this is a fine one.
She manages to get three different orchestras to project a consistent
vision of the composer and conveys her great enthusiasm for the music
besides.  The soloists, Buchman and Gandelsman, play superbly.  Bargain-label
Naxos has issued this release.  If you don't know much of Bloch, you
will probably find this a good place to start or even to continue your
explorations.  Now we need a complete recording of his opera, Macbeth
in the original French, to my mind as powerful a work as Boris Godunov.
Are you listening, Naxos20

Steve Schwartz

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