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CD Review

Ernst Bloch

  • Israel Symphony (1916)
  • Suite for Viola & Orchestra (1919) *
Adriana Kohutková, soprano
Katarína Kramolišová, soprano
Terezia Bajaková, mezzo-soprano
Denisa Hamarová, alto
Michal Mačuha, baritone
* Yuri Gandelsman, viola
Slovak Radio Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
* Atlas Camerata Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
Naxos 8.573283 (Previously issued as AS&V 1148)
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When these performances were on AS&V, Mr. R. James Tobin hailed this as his "find of the year" in a 2005 Classical Net review (CDDCA1148). So nice to see it back in circulation. Since that time, Dalia Atlas has continued to champion Bloch with a few other albums that are also found on Naxos. Here, with both the Slovak Radio Symphony and her own Atlas Camerata, she leads two important entries in the Bloch canon.

Bloch has a unique sound world. In the realm of classical music, that's akin to saying "Bloch has ten fingers", but it's true all the same. The composer has a genuinely exotic and richly colorful musical language, so it always puzzles me that his work isn't more popular. It's telling that nearly a decade after the AS&V release, this is probably still the best way to acquire this music. The performances are committed and well-recorded, with the majestic Israel Symphony coming across as particularly colorful. Although I've never found the Slovak Radio forces to be especially noteworthy, they always did film music well, and Bloch's colorful and adventurous scores are thus no stretch for these players. They play very well, especially in the unquestionably moving finale, the sung parts unexpectedly written in English. Diction is so-so, but the music is ethereal.

I agree with Mr. Tobin's original assessment that the Suite for Viola and Orchestra is probably the finer piece from a compositional standpoint, but Naxos is now competing with itself. There's a fine Bloch on the same label that I reviewed last year (2013) featuring soloist Hong-Mei Xiao that holds two other major works for viola and orchestra, and deserves your attention if you care even a smidge about the solo instrument or composer. Perhaps you'll want both albums. The Suite is arrestingly scored – the Chinese flavored finale is a riot, but also somehow gorgeous – with color bursting out of every measure. On the present disc, soloist Yuri Gandelsman is somewhat more willing to milk the various melodies for their richness. At slower tempos than the newer release holds, conductor Dalia Atlas also finds more detail and contrast using hand-picked players in the score than Mariusz Smolij does with his Budapest forces. Conversely, I find a touch more playfulness with Xiao, though others will doubtless disagree.

Frankly, it's annoying to have to recommend one disc over another from the same company after only a year (see also my rant reviewing Antoni Wit's German Requiem, where Naxos presented me with the same problem). I love that Naxos is reviving long-forgotten projects, especially since Dalia Atlas is still teaching us new things about the composer today. But I have to recommend the Xiao disc if your primary interest is the viola, and this album if your primary interest is Bloch. Of course, at the Naxos price, you may find the answer is to buy both: your call.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman