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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Helvetia [23.43]
Suite for viola and orchestra [33.23]
Suite Hébraïque for viola and orchestra [14.47]
Gérard Caussée (viola)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Lior Shambadal
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, 1-2 Sept 2002. DDD
CASCAVELLE RSR 6170 [61.53]


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 Israel 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.

Rob Barnett






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