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CD Review

Ernest Bloch

  • Macbeth – Two Interludes
  • Trois poèmes juifs
  • In Memoriam
  • Symphony in E Flat Major
David Towse, violin
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dalia Atlas Sternberg
Academy Sound & Vision CDDCA1019 67:54
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Finds.

Today, one work keeps Ernest Bloch's name alive: the Schelomo "hebraic rhapsody" for cello and orchestra, recorded by just about every major and not-so-major cellist of the twentieth century, It was probably one of the first pieces of "modern" music (less than fifty years old) I heard and a piece that enlarged the way I listened to music, at least emotionally, which at my very young age counted exclusively. I picked up for a week a copy of the Leonard Rose-Eugene Ormandy LP from the public library (the first Saint-Saëns cello concerto – the famous one – made up the other side). At the time, I listened to a work if its title interested me. If I liked the piece, I took a chance on more abstract titles like "symphony," "sonata," and "concerto" by the same composer. Thus, I heard Bloch's "Schelomo" and "Sacred Service" first and his first piano quintet and Concerto Grosso #1 afterwards. I heard great passion and power in these scores. I became a Bloch maniac, hearing in his music what others hear in Bruckner, and began to spend my newspaper-route money on every one of his LPS I could find.

To my great surprise, I found out, after a few years, that Bloch apparently appealed only to a minority of the minority that comprises the classical-music public. The No-Real-Music-after-Mahler crowd ignores him as part of a general dismissal of 20th-century music. The No-Real-Music-Before-Webern gang turns up its nose at just about every composer without the proper bloodline or who fails to write a work as Historically Significant as Le Sacre du printemps. However, we can easily sweep such superficial objections aside, since the work more or less "in itself" counts above all. Less easily countered, however, are legitimate disagreements of taste. Some people find Bloch's music corny and prolix. I admit he has such work, usually due to an excess of artistic ambition. His "epic rhapsody," America, attempts no less than to synthesize dozens of American tunes into one great anthem, to show the musical connections from Native American chants through Twenties jazz, and to encapsulate Whitman's ideas of America and American vistas in a single score. The program is positively Mahlerian, and indeed, Bloch was an early admirer of Mahler, having heard the second symphony under the composer's baton. It blew him away, and he wrote an enthusiastic letter to Mahler, who replied how gratified he was that someone had understood his work so deeply. Despite the largeness of Mahler's aims, however, Mahler the formal craftsman reined in his ambitions to the formal demands of his symphonies. To put it better, he could set formal demands he could meet. Bloch at his weakest sprawls. The emotional peaks of his failures (although such work never fails completely) lack the power to engage us and seem flat or cliched. On the positive side, however, Bloch's failures never stem from the routine or the safe, but from a fiery sincerity. He always gives the best of himself, but result fails to meet ambition or intent. Nevertheless, I contend these works lie few and mostly far between.

Bloch's music sounds like nobody else's, and while individuality is not everything, it's not a small thing, either. It means, among other things, that the music gives you something of its own, that it has staked out its own artistic territory. Artists with strongly individual voices rarely shape the course of intellectual or cultural movements, but this argues more strongly for their power rather than for their weakness. Van Gogh, for example, influenced fewer painters than Cezanne or Gaugin did. An artist influenced by van Gogh risks "doing van Gogh" not as well. It's the same with composers and Bloch. Bloch, an influential teacher between the two world wars, fostered the individuality of his students. These students included Roger Sessions and Quincy Porter, neither of whom sound like Bloch or much like each other. In fact, I can think of only one composer who sounds close to Bloch – the wonderful Rebecca Clarke, who turns out Bloch as well as the original did.

Bloch's career falls into four or five periods, depending on how you count. Richard Strauss and Mussorgsky (an odd combination) count as his earliest influences. Mussorgsky (and Debussy) becomes stronger as Strauss wanes. This early period culminates in the Mussorgskian opera Macbeth, considered by several critics, including Andrew Porter, the finest opera on a major Shakespearean tragedy (and I don't believe he's forgotten Otello). I've never heard the complete opera, merely the interludes featured here and a pirate LP of excerpts in very bad performances.

The second period, his most famous – the "Jewish cycle" – includes the Trois poèmes juifs, the "Israel" Symphony, settings for tenor and orchestra of three psalms, and Schelomo, his most popular work. This has led the public to think of Bloch as an exclusively "Jewish" composer, but specific musical expressions of Judaism amount to only a very small part of his output. Indeed, some works considered "Jewish" actually evoke an imaginary Bali, a landscape that held the same fascination for Bloch as Paris did for Wallace Stevens. Incidentally, neither man ever visited the real thing. Bloch had an extremely wide culture and reading. He's bigger than any one box. Bloch became increasingly influenced by Bach and the contrapuntal masters of the Renaissance, I suspect through his work as a teacher. In fact, already a well-established composer, he began to undergo a rigorous study of counterpoint. He moved closer to the neo-classicists without losing his own identity: Bloch still speaks as Bloch rather than in a dialect of Stravinsky's. The major works here include the first piano quintet, the first concerto grosso, the Avodath Hakodesh, the piano sonata, the two violin sonatas, Voice in the Wilderness, Visions and Prophecies, and the violin concerto. Due to events in Europe, Bloch grew ever more deeply depressed, to the point where he could no longer compose – roughly a five-year period of silence. The end of World War II freed him up. He began to write more abstractly and concentrated on chamber music and works for small ensembles. Major works include the second through fifth string quartets, the second piano quintet, the Sinfonia breve, the Concerto symphonique for piano and orchestra, suites for solo violin, viola, and cello, the second concerto grosso, and the Suite hebraïque.

In 1959, when he died, Bloch's work was pretty much a fifth wheel in the wider classical-music world. He continued to receive commissions up to his death, but almost nobody influential talked about it or played it up. True, Roger Sessions spoke of the string quartets as among the century's finest. For reasons that mystify me, since I can't imagine why people don't bang down the doors to demand this music, he always appealed to a cult. Ernest Bloch Societies have sprung up in England, Italy, Switzerland, and the U.S., with such distinguished members as Ernest Newman, Donald Tovey, and Ernest Chapman. Recordings fitfully surface, and not always of the same works. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the music addresses the widest possible group. I imagine that the reduction of his audience to a niche market would have dismayed him. Perhaps his time will come.

The two interludes from Macbeth represent the culmination of Bloch's early style. I'm certain that they are meant to get listeners in the proper frame of mind for the act to follow. However, they are, according to Winton Dean ("Shakespeare and Opera"), constructed according to Wagnerian principles.

Here Bloch, unlike so many composers, has absorbed the true lesson of Wagner. [The leitmotivs] are often linked and combined and assume a Protean power of changing into each other, thus lending themselves to constant development by distortion or variation and the expression of a wide range of emotions and ideas, direct, oblique or symbolical. [For example,] Macduff's theme with its syncopated rising fifth serves with equal aptness for the idyllic calm of his family life (a passage of great lyrical beauty) and his fiery revolt against tyranny.

Unfortunately, without a score, it's impossible to say exactly what basic group of notes represents which dramatic idea, so I'm sure many fine points flew over my head. In short, we're forced by circumstance to take the piece for itself, rather than for its Shakespearean connections. The music by itself doesn't call up Macbeth to me, at any rate, probably because it has no bagpipe drones. Despite Bloch's debts to Wagner and Mussorgsky, he never winds up sounding like those two, although at one point you hear a startling, obviously Richard-Strauss cadence. Nevertheless, both interludes come across as dark, stormy, passionate, and profoundly sad. Bloch has certainly caught the fury and nihilism of the play.

With the Three Jewish Poems, we find ourselves on familiar Blochian ground. The opulent, yet bright orchestration and the chromatic melismata around the tritone and the melodic minor scale all point toward the composer of Schelomo. The first movement is Bloch's version of orientalism. Yet it's not merely exotic. Unlike the orientalism of, say, Bantock or Szymanowski, the underlying movement is not languor, but a nervous restlessness. In short, Bloch's rhythm is sharper, and his musical argument is always moving and transforming into something new and vital. The second movement, "Rite," supposedly depicts a priestly procession, but to take it as only that short-changes the composer. To me, it meditates profoundly on emotions too deep for words. Bloch hit this vein several times throughout his career – something rapturous and mystical, as in the second violin sonata ("Poème mystique"), roughly a decade later. Bloch wrote the final movement, "Cortège funèbre," on the death of his father. It certainly doesn't sound like conventional grief or elegy. The music rages more than it mourns or consoles. The quieter sections, peeping through here and there, have a family look to the "Kaddish" passage of Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh – a movement from darkness to radiance – but are usually overwhelmed by the anguish of the main themes. The remarkable ending, however, tells a complex story. The prayer music interacts with the martial, "raging" fanfares and transforms them in a thrilling moment to blazing affirmation. Yet it's only a moment. The rhythms of the cortège creep back in, as does the nervous main theme of the first movement. We are left, neither with an ascent into heaven nor with resignation, but with something ambiguous and ongoing.

The last two works on the disc are absolutely new to me (I had never even heard of either one), despite my assiduous forty-year collecting obsession with Bloch. He wrote both in the last stages of his career. In Memoriam is a fugitive piece – something you would expect to miss – but the symphony is major work. It angers me a bit that this is probably the first recording. Still, I'm glad someone has recorded it.

Bloch wrote In Memoriam on the death of his friend, pianist Ada Clements. Forty years after the Three Jewish Poems, Bloch seems to have found his way into acceptance. The music has the nobility and serenity of, say, Beethoven's Elegischer Gesang or parts of Vaughan Williams' Symphony #5. The orchestration may have lost its early opulence, but such orchestration wouldn't suit the character of these musical ideas or Bloch's mature concern for counterpoint. As for the piece, acceptance doesn't mean smugness. It's hard to write something like this without inadvertently pouring treacle over everything. The emotion in this work is earned, several times over, despite its four-and-a-half-minute length.

The symphony is undoubtedly the most complex work of the program. Bloch wrote the last three movements first, got to a certain point in the finale, and stopped. He felt not only that he needed to recall themes from the first movement, but that the themes of the second and third had to come from the first movement as well. He had, of course, not yet written the first movement or, indeed, until that point, seen the need for one. But the formal demands he made upon himself seemed to dictate the emotional character of the movement: an exploration of intervals and small groups of notes from which to mine themes. The main thematic generator resembles the well-known BACH (B Flat Major a C B) motive. Unlike the Vaughan Williams Symphony #4, which also uses similar notes and intervals, this is a real exploration, rather than something as finished. The first movement has the rhetorical function of a prologue, leading immediately to a scherzo. Bloch had a fondness for grotesquerie, which usually shows up in his scherzo movements, as it does here. The slow movement broods. The finale assumes the characters of the previous two movements. However, the real "story" of the symphony lies in how the small set of "cells" generate the extraordinarily various thematic content of the entire work. Bloch does this throughout his musical maturity. It becomes more pronounced as a procedure as he goes along. If you can't bring out this musical spine, you have little business performing Bloch. Unfortunately, Sternberg tends to take each movement as an isolated character piece. She drops the threads. A very rich piece becomes fragmented and clunky.

Sternberg does well enough on the others. No surprise – she does best with the best-known work, the Three Jewish Poems. But she offers no remarkable interpretive insights, either. I admit the symphony's a tough work to bring off, and I'm certainly grateful that it's finally recorded (after a mere half-century). However, we need first-rate people on this repertoire. I don't think it a coincidence that when major interpreters tackle Bloch (Bernstein and the Avodath Hakodesh, for example), neglected works suddenly transform into masterpieces. Nevertheless, if you don't know Bloch's work or have stuck at Schelomo, you might have a go at this disc.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz