Quite a little procession
of Bloch discs have been issued recently, mostly with very little
by way of fanfare. This is par for the course. When two years
ago both Capriccio and Actes-Sud issued different recordings
of Bloch's grand opera Macbeth there was not a single
mainstream paper journal review.
This Swiss Cascavelle
disc most adroitly presents the world premiere recording of
the orchestral poem Helvetia alongside
two less obscure works for viola and orchestra.
Helvetia was composed
in San Francisco in 1929 and premiered by the redoubtable Frederick Stock
in Chicago in 1932. This serves as further evidence for the premise
that the most nationalist-nostalgic music is written in exile
or at least from a distance. The work is subtitled The Land of
Mountains and its People - A Symphonic Fresco for orchestra. It was the third of Bloch’s national 'epics'. The
first was the symphony Israel 1916 (recorded
by Abravanel on Vanguard). The second is America,
the longest of the three at well over three-quarters of an hour.
This was recorded by both Stokowski (Vanguard) and Gerard Schwarz
(Delos). Both Helvetia and
Israel are short
by comparison. Helvetia, using the Latin name for Switzerland,
is about the same length as Israel but unlike
is in a single movement and is for orchestra alone. The
first two sections are alive with mysterious horn calls, high-floating
strings and bird-calls all evocative of the Alpine heights.
There is about this writing something of the Delius Song
of the High Hills and of Strauss's Alpensinfonie though
without the discursive bombast of the latter. At 10.02 a dancing
oboe announces the appearance of the Swiss people and later
a bluff rustic theme appears sounding like Vaughan Williams
in straw and smock mood. However the exalted mountain air soon
reasserts itself in natural dignity. According to the composer's
notes (reproduced in the ideally designed booklet - French and
English) the music moves to portray a medieval battle to throw
out the invaders of Switzerland - a touch of Liszt's Hunnenschlacht here. A Swiss
paean rings out like a chorale to signify the victory and as
it fades the high Delian mysteries of the mountains return serene
and eternal. This interesting work, which despite a momentary
flirtation with hokiness in the hymn, registers pretty sincerely
and is well worth hearing. Fortunately the pages depicting a
trance-like communing with nature outnumber the episodes concerned
with battle and victory. Indeed this inward element serves to
bind the work together.
The Viola Suite
was first written in New
York in May 1919 for viola and piano. It was orchestrated
in March 1920. He had intended it to be orchestrated all along.
The composer made it clear that this was not intended to be
one of his Jewish works (Schelomo, Avodath
Hakodesh, Israel, A Voice in the Wilderness etc). Instead
his aim was to portray the far east: Java, Sumatra and Borneo. This typefies a Gallic trend which can be heard in
the works of Roussel, Ravel, Cras and Tomasi. The three movements
are entitled In the Jungle (rhapsodic and glistening
mysteriously), Grotesques (a macabre allegro ironico),
Nocturne (a hieratic lento - suggesting a liana-entangled
temple), The Land of the Sun (gamelan-bright rather like
certain works by Henri Tomasi). This would go well with Roussel's
Evocations, Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, and the Jungle-based
works of Werner Josten and Charles Koechlin.
The Suite Hébraïque
is in three movements. The first is full of modest grace
and a certain blessed understated confidence. These are in the
style of the suite Baal Shem for violin and orchestra;
in fact this piece exists also in a version for violin and orchestra.
It has been recorded on Supraphon by Hyman Bress. The Suite
Hébraïque is rhapsodic but not as tormentedly lyrical as
Schelomo. Gérard Caussée is masterly throughout, limning
the contours with utmost care and some abandon when called for.
This work would pair very neatly with Vaughan Williams' Flos
Campi though it is not quite so sensual.
A highly attractive release, well designed
and documented. Enthusiasts of Bloch, the viola and the mountain
heights must not miss this.