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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Violin Concerto (1938) [38:21]
Baal Shem for violin and orchestra (1923) [14:34]
Suite Hébraïque for violin and orchestra (1952) [13:06]
Zina Schiff (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 28-30 March 2006
NAXOS 8.557757 [66:01]

Whilst I don’t quite agree with the Naxos blurb that Bloch’s Violin Concerto is ‘an underrated rarity’, there’s no doubt that it ought to be better known. It’s a splendid, passionate work that admittedly is hardly ever heard in the concert hall but has received a number of excellent recordings over the years. The catalogue has over the years been dominated by various versions from its dedicatee Szigeti, my own favourite being the Paris/Munch one recently revived on Naxos Historical> However I got to know the work in the superb Menuhin/Kletzki EMI disc recorded in the 1960s.
This equally superb newcomer from Naxos could well be what this piece has been waiting for – an excellent, committed performance in exemplary sound and at budget price. Indeed, as I’ve played and played it over the last days I find it hard to imagine a better modern version. Credit first of all to conductor/composer José Serebrier, who is having an exceptionally fruitful Indian summer these days for Naxos. He obviously knows and loves the piece, having recorded it before for ASV with a fiery Michael Guttman and the RPO, a disc still highly rated. This new version is slightly less impetuous but no less convincing, as in the opening bars, where Serebrier treats the big first theme broadly and nobly rather than forcefully or aggressively. It sets up the mood of the long, rhapsodic first movement ideally, letting the overlapping Jewish/Indian thematic phrases emerge naturally while keeping a real grip on what can be an unwieldy structure in the wrong hands. Time to mention the wonderful soloist at last; Zina Schiff is a Heifetz protégé, and obviously shares Serebrier’s admiration for this score. In her excellent notes she rightly refers to the composer’s own description of the concerto as portraying ‘… the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating through the Bible’, and this shows in her playing, which has an unbuttoned emotional intensity without being cloying or sentimental. She and Serebrier are at one in being relaxed yet spontaneous, a very difficult balancing act. Her tone is glorious throughout - try 5 minutes or so into the andante - and the orchestral support well night ideal, with sumptuous string tone and thrilling wind and brass - the opening of the finale. It is a truly excellent recording and makes a very strong case for the piece.
The shorter works make excellent bedfellows. Baal Shem has quite a few notable rivals but again Schiff’s mixture of improvisatory abandon and emotional commitment are very hard to beat. The piece is even more suffused with Jewish spirituality than the concerto and is in three short movements, all memorable in their melodic material and scoring. I especially like the finale, ‘Rejoicing in the Law’, where once again Schiff’s rock-steady intonation and tone colour are a joy, as is the RSNO’s superb support.
The slightly shorter Suite Hébraïque, originally for viola and occasionally heard with piano accompaniment, is also in three movements and once again celebrates what Schiff calls ‘the eternal spirit of the Jewish people’. It’s another passionate piece, with a finale whose main theme resembles the finale of the concerto, and is given another strongly characterised rendition.
This disc has to be given a real thumbs-up, giving us as it does all Bloch’s major works for violin and orchestra in thrilling performances and with demonstration sound quality. Don’t hesitate.
Tony Haywood


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