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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]

I suppose it all depends how Jewish you like your Bloch Violin Concerto. Soloist Zina Schiff, who also writes the fine booklet notes, has little truck with the composer’s own stated thoughts on the subject. She clearly thinks his promotion of the “American Indian” is an evasion of the “Jewish” motifs in the work. To underscore the point she plays it as she means it, vesting the opening paragraphs with yearning Hebraic tone and expressive portamenti that are, in my experience, unique on disc.
It makes for songful, heightened tension and a definably different alignment in expressive weight.  Thus passages in the central movement become, in her hands, a Chassidic chant, and Bloch’s statement that he had “no Jewish intent” in the concerto is put to stern test. She plays with technical assurance throughout, and she brings a strong sense of self-identification to bear - one that’s increased by virtue of her promotion of the Biblical in Bloch. She has José Serebrier to accompany, an old stager in this work who has already recorded it with Michael Guttman.
But for those who may not share this sense of the explicit there’s a more aristocratic approach – what I’d call the Szigeti-Totenberg-Bress lineage. Szigeti is best represented by the live performance with Mengelberg (Music & Arts CD720) though the premiere recording he made with Charles Munch in Paris is a powerful document in its own right. Totenberg recorded it in Vienna in 1961 with Golschmann on Vanguard 08404671. And Hyman Bress made a magnificent recording with the Prague Symphony under the much under-rated Jindřích Rohan in 1967 (Supraphon). All three adhere more closely to the more expressively “neutral” if I can put it that way. Thus Bress can seem to underplay the opening – but not a bit of it; he is magnificently in control of the rhetoric, and the pacing, of a superficially discursive opening movement. Totenberg plays the work, violinistically, better than it’s ever been played on disc; his accompaniment is not as imaginative as some others but his is a central name in the discography of this work. Szigeti of course is wonderful and again he makes no attempt to turn the concerto into a Hebraic vehicle; Mengelberg’s support is galvanic, though not as good as Rohan’s in the finale. Of course there are other recordings but Menuhin’s, for example, hasn’t quite stood the test of time. 
The Suite Hébraïque is once again a vehicle for Schiff’s expressive certainties. She plays with maximum commitment and real eloquence. But turn to Bress and one finds him rather faster in the Rapsodie, his rubati subtly deployed and his tone multi-variegated. It’s Bress and Rohan who are more in tune with the dynamic contours of the second movement Processional – Schiff and Serebrier could have sculpted things rather more imaginatively here. And there are one or two sticky moments in the finale – awkward sounding after the command of Bress.  Baal Shem is of a piece with Schiff’s playing throughout – committed and generous expression allied to fine technical command.
No complaints about the sound quality. Naxos has captured this orchestra and recording location before and does so again in exemplary fashion. This is a fine budget price disc sporting quality performances. My own tastes happen to lie elsewhere – Bress if you can find him, Totenberg for the superlative solo playing, Szigeti for a historical reference - but for those who prefer red blooded Bloch, this is a viable, albeit Biblical, alternative.
Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Tony Haywood


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