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CD Review

Ernest Bloch

Works for Violin and Orchestra

  • Violin Concerto, 1938 (38:21)
  • Baal Shem (3 Pictures of Hasidic Life), 1923 (14:34)
  • Suite hébraïque, 1952 (13:06)
Zina Schiff, violin
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
Naxos 8.557757
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Selected comparisons, concerto:
Joseph Szigeti, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, cond. Charles Munch. Turnabout/Vox Historical Series (EMI 1939 recording). Vinyl.
Oleh Krysa, Malmo Symphony Orchestra, cond. Sakari Oromo. BIS CD-639

Selected comparisons, Baal Shem, Suite hébraïque:
Hagai Shaham, violin; Arnon Erez, Piano. Hyperion CDA67571
Pinchas Zukerman, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Lawrence Foster. Coumbia M30644. (vinyl) Nigun from Baal Shem only.

This is the performance and recording of Bloch's Violin Concerto I have been waiting for. The few earlier versions I have heard disappointed me. They have not inspired many re-hearings and, in fact have made the work seem bland and a bit dull. This recent NAXOS release immediately grabbed and kept my attention. This performance has the intense rhapsodic excitement of other Bloch works in his Hebraic style.

Bloch actually did not consider this work to be in that style, claiming that it was based on Native American influences but other musicians have disagreed, citing particularly its modal intervals. The violin was Bloch's instrument, and early in his development he studied with the violinist Eugène Ysa˙e, before that teacher urged him to take up composition. Further urging came from Romain Rolland, who found Bloch working in a Swiss clock shop. In his thirties, Block emigrated to America, where he became director of conservatories in Cleveland, San Francisco and at UC-Berkeley. He spent about seven years composing the Violin Concerto, which he dedicated to Joseph Szigeti.

Zina Schiff, the soloist here on this recording and the writer of its program notes, calls the Violin Concerto and the suites "exquisite." (She studied at Curtis and was a protégé of Jasha Heifetz.) Walter Simmons, in Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers is less enthusiastic about the Violin Concerto, finding the opening movement "diffuse, strained and rhetorical," and the concerto overall repetitious and lacking rhythmic drive. For myself, the work in this performance, has me with it all the way.

As for the other works on this disc, Baal Shem was composed originally for viola and piano, then violin and piano, and orchestrated in 1939. The Suite hébraïque was also first written for viola and piano, and orchestrated two years after its composition. I strongly prefer the versions with orchestra, recorded here.

The sound on this recording adds to its excitement but also gives me pause. In comparison with the vinyl recording of the Nigun section of Baal Shem, on which the violin tone glows and the orchestra is well balanced, the Naxos recording is forward rather than recessed. After a few hearings, I found myself turning down the treble on my pre-amp, which improved the sound of both the solo violin and the brass to my satisfaction. You might prefer it that way also. With this small reservation, I can recommend this release highly.

Copyright © 2008 by R. James Tobin