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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
America - An Epic Rhapsody (1926) [50:03]
Suite Hébraîque (1950) [12:40]
Lučnica Chorus/Elena MatúVsová
Slovak Radio SO/Dalia Atlas
Hagai Shaham (violin)
Atlas Camerata Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
rec. Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 26-31 March 2001; Haifa Israel, 11 July 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.557151 [62:43]


The Israeli conductor Dalia Atlas has already carved out a reputation as a Bloch specialist. There is at least one ASV disc of orchestral music conducted by her. It includes the early and epic Bloch Symphony.

Here Atlas contributes a new recording of Bloch's America. This was written in sincere tribute to the composerís adopted homeland. It was completed in 1926 two years after he had become an American citizen. The joint dedication is to Lincoln and Walt Whitman.

America joins two earlier nationalistic works to make a triptych of sorts: the Symphony Israel (recorded on Vanguard) and a work very similar in approach to America, Helvetia. Helvetia was recently issued by Cascavelle for the first time.

The movements of America are: I 1620: The Soil - The Indians - (England) - The Mayflower - The Landing of the Pilgrims [19:42]; II 1861-1865: Hours of Joy - Hours of Sorrow [15:46]; III The Present - The Future (Anthem) [14:35]

The Soil picks up on the mysteries of the country's prehistory in music wreathed in brooding and expectation. At 8.02 this gives way to grand Handelian writing referring to the English connection via the Pilgrim Fathers. A sense of pioneer struggle can be heard from 11.33 onwards. The language canbe likened to early Howard Hanson with cross-currents from Vaughan Williams and Sibelius all mingled with an exotic sway. Atlas's attention to dynamics is very pronounced and she brings out some telling moments.

The big second movement charts the four years of the American Civil War in contemplative language. Thankfully there is no attempt at a Battle of Vittoria. A great melody akin to Shenandoah can be heard at 3.00. It is given the full sleepy Delian effect (Appalachia, Sea Drift and Brigg Fair) meshed with hints of distant fanfares (5:01). Kodaly's lovely orchestral piece Summer Evening is also not that far distant from Bloch's writing here. After such extended reflection the spirit of battle and discord can be heard at 10:02 with snatches of mingled Confederate and Union songs flung around the scenery. The shuddering remnants of John Brown's Body emerge at 12:12 as the music recedes into the warmth and melancholy from which it rose. A mysterious trumpet solo sounds out commandingly without braggartry recalling Ives' Unanswered Question.

The last movement examines the then present (1926) and the future. This is a wild amalgam of industrial frenetic production, jazzy frivolity, recollections of the hieratic trumpet figure serve to unify the three movements (2:47). A Kodaly-like interlude of calm lyrical expectation is reminiscent of Galanta and The Peacock. The music gradually gathers a nobility recalling John Ireland's These Things Shall Be and the choral finale of Joly Braga-Santos's Fourth Symphony. The Rhapsody ends with the anthem America! America! to Bloch's own fervent words. The singing is in unison. The melody of this paean to nationhood is similar in style to the sort of trio counter-melody Walton contributed to his coronation marches Orb and Sceptre and Crown Imperial.

This is not America's first recording. That honour belongs to a Vanguard LP in which the Symphony of the Air were conducted by Stokowski. This found its way on to a Vanguard CD though I have never seen a copy. There is also a long gone Schwarz Delos version as well. The Schwarz came in for some real stick when first issued: under-characterised. Itís not a disc Iíve heard as yet.

America suffers from a discursive rhapsodic approach for which the historical subtext only partially compensates. Nevertheless Ms Atlas makes the most of its strengths. My memory tells me that she leaves a more indelible impression than Stokowski.

Lastly comes the Suite HébraÏque for violin and orchestra. This dates from the early 1950s and exists in versions for both viola and violin; with piano or with orchestra. It was premiered by the violist Milton Preves with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kubelik on 1 January 1953. In the case of this Naxos version I wondered if the Rapsodie (tr. 4) was intended to be so heavy-shod. This contrasts with the steady stride of Processional and the florally decorative and slightly earnest Affirmation finale. For such a late work the Suite is accessible and in the last movement catchily memorable.

This will be a surefire winner for Bloch specialists and also for those intrigued by patriotic immigrant Americana.

These are both good performances and I greatly liked Shaham's sturdy singing tone.

Rob Barnett

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