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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Israel Symphony (1912-16)
Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1919) +
Yuri Gandelsman (viola) +
Adriana Kohutková (soprano)
Katarína Kramolišová (soprano)
Terezia Bajaková (mezzo soprano)
Denisa Hamarová (alto)
Michal Mačuha (baritone)

Atlas Camerata Orchestra +
Slovak Radio Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
Recorded in the Concert Studio of Slovak Radio, Bratislava October 2000 (Suite)
Churchill Auditorium, Haifa May 2001 (Symphony)
ASV CD DCA 1148 [66.48]

The Israel Symphony represents the heart of Bloch’s projected Jewish Cycle, an ambitious scheme that never quite came to fruition. The Symphony was to have been cast in three big parts and was begun in 1912. But the increasingly depressing news of the War led to Bloch’s abandoning the vast edifice and it was recast in the three surviving movements that we have here, lasting about half an hour in total. The short opening movement (Lent et solennel) is an attempted evocation of the mobile Temple in the wilderness. For all the hieratic brass and the stern nobility there is also a fresh air transparency that reminds one, however improbably, of a kind of pre-Copland. And in the second movement, in which Bloch took the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, as his theme, we find more evidence of influence and counter-influence. Though it opens in media res in turbulence and tumult it moves glancingly close to Mahler before moving away. The great string wash at 7.20 here, elevated and striving, has an almost cinematic-operatic sweep to it that reminds one strongly of, if not Mahler, then at least those influenced by him – before Bloch reasserts the striving and the strain of the early part of this movement. Novel instrumental colour is used – though Elgar beat Bloch with the shofar by a long way – and in the beautiful finale the light and verdant orchestration is a delight. The solo singers – there are five – are directed to stand among the instrumentalists or at the back of the platform. The intention clearly was one of integration and the texts they sing – Bloch’s own, derived from Psalms 142 and 143 – take on a personalised expression even though they are, in a recording, unavoidably present in a way that concert performances could soften. This is a real improvement on the Abravanel/Vanguard disc both in recording balance and incisiveness of performance.

Coupled with it is the Suite for Viola in its incarnation for Viola and Orchestra. The Suite for Viola and Piano was first performed in 1919 by Louis Bailly and Harold Bauer and the orchestration followed later, as indeed did a version for Cello and Piano. There are losses and gains here. I value the interplay of solo instruments in the original version, especially when played by such as Primrose and Kitzinger or Wallfisch and Wallfisch. But there is some remarkable orchestral colour and exotic instrumentation in this version that is well worth hearing. The evocative arching support, the suggestive winds and coiling strings are all pregnant with meaning both expressed and occluded and the soloist Yuri Gandelsman proves a masterful guide. The Atlas Camerata is especially fine at evoking the acrid intensity of the slow movement as indeed it is in the swirling and demanding Allegro ironico.

Notes are fine and performances, as indicated, excellent – I haven’t mentioned by name the Slovak Radio Orchestra but they are on top form. Dalia Atlas directs with real idiomatic command. Maybe the studio acoustic in the Symphony is a touch too big, but it does expand well to contain some of the climaxes. But this is all strongly and understandingly done and enthusiastically recommended.

Jonathan Woolf

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