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Laurel records


Ernest BLOCH (1894-1959)
Music for Viola
Suite Hébraïque for viola and orchestra (1951) [12:46]
Suite for viola and piano (1919) [35:19]
Unaccompanied Suite for viola (1959) (with a posthumous ending by Karen Elaine) [9:11]
Nigun for viola and string quartet (arr. Karen Elaine) [6:21]
Karen Elaine (viola)
Dolores Stevens (piano); Kathleen Robinson (violin); Cameron Patrick (violin); Darrin McCann (viola); Matthew Cooker (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/David Amos
rec. October 1990, CTS Studios, Wembley, London, UK (1); October 1990, Gilbert Recording Studios (2,3); August 2008 Capital Records, Hollywood, California USA (4). ADD


Experience Classicsonline

This interesting and enjoyable disc showcases a range of music for the viola by the Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch. It is variously with orchestra, with piano accompaniment, solo and with a string quartet. 

Karen Elaine's playing has a warm mellow quality which suits the music well and the technical quality of the disc is also very good. Ms Elaine has contributed beyond her playing by also arranging Nigun, composing a posthumous ending for the unaccompanied suite - Bloch's last work, which he died without completing - and writing helpful and informative notes which accompany the CD. 

The opening work - Suite Hébraïque -- is a concerto in all but name, albeit a brief one. It is perhaps the most straightforward and successful work here, and makes a good opening. Each of the three short movements is based on a different aspect of Jewish liturgical practice. The first evokes the call of the shofar - a ram's horn blown during the services of the high holy days: the new year and the day of Atonement. The second - processional - is inspired by the Torah scroll being carried around the synagogue for members of the congregation to touch with their prayer shawl as a sign of devotion. The third - affirmation - is a March representing the elevation of the Torah scroll in front of the entire congregation. Aside and apart from its overtly religious elements, it is also a musically pleasing work with the different elements contrasting with each other and then coming to a resolution. 

In the following, and much longer, Suite the viola is accompanied by piano. This much-earlier work lacks the concise quality of its predecessor. It has a very pleasant slow third movement with Brahmsian influences and an excellent closing section which draws together its rather disparate elements. It is strongly influenced by eastern European dance melodies. There is then a work for unaccompanied viola in the 12-tone genre, found in a minority of Bloch's compositions. This demonstrates and gives an example of this aspect of the composer's output. However, in comparison with the other works it seems a little constrained by the formality of compositional technique. 

The beautiful closing work is again an explicitly religious one, an example of a nigun, here written for viola plus string quartet. A nigun is a wordless devotional piece, associated with now-trendy kabalistic tradition and with the hassidim. It is intended to create a spiritual path towards higher consciousness. The piece is divided into sections called "Gates", each of which has to be repeated twice. Its pace needs to be slow, reflective and pensive. 

"A nigun brings a surge of new life and healing, sweetens the bitter soul and fills a home with light - as the song sung by David for King Saul which healed his bitter spirit." (Karen Elaine) 

This is a spiritual path which is unlikely to be well-known, and the present recording offers an insight into it as well as a piece of music which is enjoyable in itself. It has a haunting and uplifting beauty which would be apparent to listeners of any background. 

Born in Switzerland, Bloch's life was divided between America, which eventually became his home, and Europe. He was significant not only as a composer but as an orchestral conductor and also as a teacher. His music is attracting considerable interest in this fiftieth anniversary of the year of his death. Further information can be found on the Ernest Bloch website and another very informative website is produced by Claude Torres of Montpellier, France who is a recognised authority on Bloch's life and work. 

Karen Elaine, who takes the solo role here, has won a number of competitions in her native California. She has the interesting distinction of accolades not only in the musical world but also for scuba diving. This unusual combination of talents is evoked by the cover illustration, Still Life with Viola by Boris Hecht, which features a large spiny seashell as well as the instrument. She has a long-standing collaboration with the conductor David Amos, each having links with the University of San Diego. The LSO are precise yet graceful and never overshadow the viola. 

This slightly obscure disc is a little quaint but has its own distinctive charm. It showcases both the instrument and the composer, both of which are seldom in the limelight. With so much classical music strongly connected to Christianity, it is interesting to hear works influenced explicitly by a different religious tradition.

Julie Williams


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