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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959):
Concerto for violin and orchestra (1937) [33.06] (a)
Concerto Grosso no. 1 (1925) [22.37] (b)
Sherban Lupu (violin) (a)
National Romanian Radio Orchestra/Ian Hobson (a)
Romanian Radio Chamber Orchestra/Ian Hobson (piano and conductor) (b)
Rec. Bucharest, Romania, June 2003. DDD.
ZEPHYR Z131-04-01 [55.45]

There have been a number of recordings lately featuring Ernest Bloch’s music. This is positive as he is largely known for Schelomo, a Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra. One quickly discovers that the idiom flavouring Schelomo flavours almost everything else too, though not the violin concerto. Featuring two sizable works, this new recording clearly shows that Bloch felt he had something to say.

The Violin Concerto – once recorded by Menuhin – is likely to be anticipated as the more interesting work. Bloch trained as a violinist prior to turning to composition, and the work proves a curious mixture of North American sources and the Belgian violin and composition schools out of which he graduated.

The opening quotes at least eight themes, none of which is really developed that far, though one based on North American sources proves more memorable than the rest. For an allegro deciso of over 17 minutes, I was surprised how little deciso came through in performance. There are shortish bursts for tutti orchestra, and these are weightily given, but much of the opening movement seems strangely wayward. The andante is atmospheric in its lines for the wind instruments placed against Lupu’s finely strung violin solo. Here, as earlier, he steers a path that allows bite, beauty and body to his tone. Thematically though, the movement is slight.

The closing deciso opens with brass and strings against a jaunty solo line which Lupu uses to further display both quality and fluency. As with the first movement any impetus initially created is soon dispelled as Bloch moves from one textural colour to another. The orchestra captures these colours, and it is hard to imagine the homogenised sound of a western orchestra doing so with as much individuality. Hobson’s direction, for the most part unfussy, cannot disguise the shortcomings evident in the composer’s imagination. My main reservation concerns the recorded sound, as it’s somewhat distant. It does no favours to the performers who are capable of more than the recording really displays.

The Concerto Grosso (the first of two) opens with a short, rather four-square, prelude given forthrightly. Any problems with the recording have been corrected, as the performance is much more immediate. Hobson’s piano obbligato is made of sturdy stuff. The second movement dirge might have been more obviously depressing were it not for the orchestral weight and shading that frequently gives the performance a chamber music air. There are also plenty of opportunities for orchestral solos to come through: violin, viola and cello – all register keenly on the ear. The pastorale and rustic dances bring a refined view of the country to the proceedings, to which impetus is added by Hobson’s playing and the flexibility of tempi, to which the orchestra readily respond. The closing fugue-allegro is the point at which any indebtedness to the Handelian concerto grosso is most noticeable. Bloch’s orchestration announces it as something entirely of twentieth century origins without once endangering any tonal sensibilities.

David Z. Kushner’s six page booklet note makes the case for Bloch’s music in the face of narrow criticism. In the end though, it is the music that must convince, and it just does not quite do that. These might be works for occasional listening but they are given committed performances, and a pleasure to hear Romanian forces reaching a wider international audience. A great pity the recording ambience lets the violin concerto down.

Evan Dickerson



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