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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Violin Concerto (1937-38) [38:08]
Benjamin LEES (b. 1924)
Violin Concerto (1958) [27:25]
Elmar Oliveira (violin)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
rec. 21-22 May 2007, Great Concert Studio, Ukrainian National Radio, Kiev. DDD
ARTEK AR00422 [65:36]


Experience Classicsonline

Right from track 1 – the first movement of the Ernest Bloch Concerto – it becomes apparent that these sessions were captured in a really resonant acoustic. It’s a deeply impressive hall conveyed through a warm yet unclouded and analytical sound-image. This suits well the hoarse primitive fanfares that launch the Bloch Concerto in what is a very likeable and strong performance. The conductor tells me that rather than attempt a martial sound in the beginning fanfare he thought he would try to make it sound more like a shofar: “for me it is more a call to worship or ritual than to arms”.

It had me engaging emotionally with a work which previously I have found only intermittently enthralling. The EMI Menuhin recording never really won me over and at one stage it was the only choice. It left me remembering only those “Ancient of Days” fanfares. Oliveira, John McLaughlin Williams, the Ukrainian orchestra and audio engineers have turned that around. This the best recorded version I have heard and the performance matches its technical excellence. The tenderness of the Bloch never becomes effusive or sentimental. There is austerity too but this asserts itself through economy of emotional expression. It is a fascinating account of a romantic concerto that lacks a really big tune. Its palette is capacious and its sense of fantasy does not tip over into luxuriance. At various times this tonal work might recall the contemporaneous Bax concerto or the much later Bliss. It makes a very satisfying impression. This is emotionally nourishing music played to the hilt by a violinist whose exalted credentials were always clear from his classic Barber (EMI – recently reissued), Achron and Flagello’s Credendum and Violin Concerto.

Benjamin Lees was born in China of Russian parentage. He held various academic posts at the Juilliard, Peabody, Baltimore, Queen's College, New York and Manhattan School of Music. Ruggiero Ricci recorded his Violin Concerto for Vox (see review) and this is a sure indication of the high regard in which he is held by the musical establishment. Many his works have been recorded and are accessible to the listening public. His symphonies 2, 3 and 5 were issued by Albany in a very fine twin CD set (see review). Naxos issued his moving Symphony No. 4 Memorial Candles in its American Classics series (see review). He was first non-British composer to be awarded the Sir Arnold Bax Society Medal (London 1958).

The Lees Violin Concerto was written in 1958 while Lees was in France. It was premiered by Henryk Szeryng in Boston in 1963. A traditional work, it inventively deploys a tonal palette and treatment across three movements: two slow and one quick. It is mercurial with chameleon-mood changes and is neither as scarifying nor as hyper-tensile as the Schuman concerto which it occasionally echoes as in the emphatically punched out passage at 2.12 in the slalom swaying finale. There are three movements of which the Andante makes determined and angular play with intriguing rhythmic devices. It sometimes recalls the fragrance and fantasy of the Bax Violin Concerto of 1937. Its finely honed melodies and some of the treatments are tugged between the tropics of Walton and Prokofiev (1). The Adagio is characterised by some pristinely calculated effects: part balm, part threat (6:31). If the finale seems to have more action than substance it is an example of the perennial problem of how to write a conclusion.

Two 20th century concertos, presented with great commitment, accomplishment and inspiration as well as being well documented. Can we hope for other American violin concertos, I wonder: the concertos by Edward Burlinghame Hill and Frederick Converse should also be worth discovering. I am also fairly sure that there are several works for violin and orchestra by Charles Martin Loeffler.

Rob Barnett

Comparative reviews of the Bloch Violin Concerto:

Roman Totenberg
Zina Schiff
Sherban Lupu
Mischa Lefkowitz


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