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| Ernest BLOCH
Hiver-Printemps (1904-5) [14.29]
Poèmes D’Automne (1906) [22.23]
In the Night (1922) [5.17]
2 Psaumes (1912-14) [12.59]
Psaume 22 (1913-14) [7.54]
Mireille Delunsch (soprano)
Brigitte Balleys (mezzo-soprano)
Vincent Le Texier (baritone)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg/David Shallon
Recorded at Luxembourg Conservatoire, September, 1999 DDD
TIMPANI 1C1052 [63.43]
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The excellent Timpani label continues to explore neglected, but worthwhile, repertoire with this recent(ish) release devoted to the music of an overtly Jewish artist, a ‘composer in search of a country’, Ernest Bloch. Though he eventually found a stability (of sorts) in the USA, all the works on this disc, with the exception of the very short In the Night, come from Bloch’s first major creative period, prior to the First World War.
I think it is fair to assume that, to the average listener, Bloch is really only known for his famous ‘Hebraic rhapsody’ for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, as well as possibly the Violin Concerto (in Menuhin’s famous recording), and Baal Shem, another piece featuring solo violin and often coupled with either of these two works. The present disc proudly announces ‘premieres’ on the cover, and certainly if you respond to any of the more familiar Bloch, you will enjoy making the acquaintance of all these pieces.
Although the liner note writer, Harry Halbreich, rightly defines Bloch as ‘a fiercely independent composer on the fringes of the twentieth century’s aesthetic movements, who deliberately chose solitude as the only means of staying faithful to his ideal’, there are discernible traces of other composers here. The orchestral diptych Hiver-Printemps (Winter-Spring), which the composer himself premiered in Paris in 1906, has echoes of Debussy, not least in the fragmented nature of the melodic line, which is shared out between families of instruments, the whole thing having a suitably Impressionistic blur. The Poèmes D’Automne, written while Bloch was going through something of a personal crisis, are settings of four poems by his then lover, Beatrix Rodes; the words themselves are rather naïve and dated (even by the standards of 1906), but Bloch’s music has real power and imagination, emerging as a sort of cross between Strauss and Ravel. The most opulent orchestral sonorities are saved for the last setting, Invocation, where lines such as ‘the flames are mounting toward the leaves aglow on the branches’ are saved by a sumptuous bed of sound, rich in string tone and evocative woodwind detail.
Bloch’s setting of Psalms 114 and 137 have invited comparisons with the precocious Lili Boulanger, whose settings of Psalms 24 and 130 (also recorded by Timpani) share a similarly grand and visionary quality. The two composers are not known to have met, but there is something about the fervent word-painting, tinged with dissonance (an awareness of Stravinsky creeping in?) that almost compel one to draw parallels. Whatever the case, this is Bloch inspired by his text, creating a vivid picture of suffering and salvation, superbly performed (as are all the pieces) by singers and orchestra alike.
This is all music that is well worth getting to know; Bloch was a great craftsman and, at his best, a creator of memorable material. He was working through turbulent times, artistically and politically, and whilst traces of more famous composers are inevitable, Bloch is always his own man. He is famously quoted thus; "I readily confess I have never sought to be original or ‘modern’ in any of my works … theories, like novelties, come and go so quickly … my sole effort has been directed towards being faithful to my vision, towards being true … Art for me is an expression of life, not a cold-headed elaboration of mathematical theory’. The works recorded here amply justify this aesthetic, and could not be more persuasively performed. The orchestra play with real sensitivity and, where needed, sumptuous virtuosity, and all the soloists are first-rate. Recorded sound is also good, with plenty of bloom, a spacious acoustic, and balance between soloists and ensemble well judged.
An excellent disc, then, which not only fleshes out our knowledge of music at the turn of the century, but widens our appreciation of a gifted composer.
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