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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Kol Nidre [13:44]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Halil [14:39]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Baal Shem - Three pictures of Chassidic Life [15:08]
Eric ZEISL (1905-1959)
Requiem Ebraico (The 92nd Psalm) [18:26]
Stephen Bronk (speaker); Sharon Bezaly (flute); Vadim Gluzman (violin); Gabriella Pace (soprano); Luisa Francesconi (mezzo); Rodrigo Esteves (baritone)
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/John Neschling
rec. Sala São Paulo, August 2007
BIS CD-1650 [63:04]
Experience Classicsonline

Over the years the Swedish BIS label have made something of a speciality of interesting “anthology” recordings. This particular disc is an excellent example if not one of their absolute best. With the exception of the three movement Baal Shem by Ernest Bloch none of the works here could be deemed particularly well-known within the oeuvre of their respective composers but all command attention in performances as powerful as these. Scandinavian music and musicians formed the core of the BIS catalogue as well but in recent times they have spread their net far further afield to include orchestras such as the ensemble here - The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra from Brazil under their principal conductor John Neschling. Previously I had only heard their recordings of music by their compatriots Villa-Lobos and Guarnieri which are uniformly excellent. How pleasing to be able to report that the orchestra here play magnificently and are caught in superb demonstration class sound by the BIS engineers.

I like the intelligent layout of this CD too - two powerful choral works - both commissioned by the chief rabbi of Los Angeles Jakob Sonderling - frame a strongly differing pair of instrumental works. All of these works run for less than twenty minutes yet each demand a great deal in terms of complexity of music and scale of instrumentation. Therefore, for all their musical merits they are unlikely to be heard often in the concert hall making us all the more grateful for their inclusion here. As with any anthology there will always be issues of repertoire duplication for the collector but I would say that the sum of the quality of this disc outweighs that concern.

The Schoenberg Kol Nidre Op.39 which opens the disc is a knotty work. Written in 1938 some five years after Schoenberg’s return to Judaism. His preferred language of serialism is consciously diluted in a deliberate effort to appeal to a broader audience. Yet the part for the narrator is written to include elements of sprechgesang where guide pitches and rhythms for the spoken text are notated. Stephen Bronk the speaker here, negotiates this tricky concept well although it has to be said - as with most pieces written for spoken voice and orchestra - there enters an element of melodrama (literally) that is not always utterly convincing. In fact I would go as far as saying that Schoenberg’s notated choices for the speaker sometimes reduce the dramatic potential of the text by slowing natural speech rhythms and adding a histrionic effect to the text. Certainly, I did not find this to be nearly as powerful a work as the same composer’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46. It seems that part of Schoenberg’s intention was to "obliterate the excessive sentimentality of Bruch's cello." In this he was commenting on Max Bruch’s famous version of the chant for cello and orchestra. How ironic that his treatment becomes so complex that in the words of one commentator “Schoenberg's piece seems to bury not only the original melody, but with it the introspective, soul-searching quality of the prayer.” I have to say that Neschling with his excellent Brazilian players and chorus play and sing with compelling fervour.

Leonard Bernstein’s Halil is probably the least known of his major concert works. Again I think its duration - 14:39 here - makes it tricky to programme. House flautist Sharon Bezaly makes the most of its continuously shifting moods. My only technical quibble with the disc is that I found the flute a fraction close as recorded - not that Ms Bezaly’s playing cannot take that kind of scrutiny - far from it - it’s just that it prevents the soloist from integrating into the instrumental group as much as I suspect Bernstein intended. As so often Bernstein moves between lyrical and reflective music and passages of great dancing energy. His greatest gift - that of melody - is well to the fore. At only 1:46 into the piece the flute takes up a phrase that seems to try to reach upwards and evolve in much the same way a distant relative of it did in his score to On the Waterfront. There are passages that are ritualistic in their use of percussion with the flautist invoking with chant-like phrases some mysterious spirit. This piece lies somewhere on the cusp of Bernstein’s oeuvre halfway between the melodic abundance of Fancy Free and Chichester Psalms and the more deliberately modernist Dybbuk. Not a work that is central to the understanding of Bernstein’s work but certainly one that it is a pleasure to hear.

I’ve never been that easy with Ernest Bloch’s rather contentious statement, “Nationalism is not essential in music, but I think racial consciousness is …”. I suppose if the two simple words “for me” were inserted before that sentence it would be a different thing. Art and culture would be all the poorer if creative artists only produced works influenced by their racial roots and not their present cultural circumstance - it would imply a self-imposed spiritual ghettoisation. Certainly Baal Shem is the piece of the four here which most deliberately mimics the melodic outlines and rhythms of traditional Jewish music even though - with the exception of a Polish/Yiddish folksong in the final movement - the melodies are all Bloch’s own. Leaving behind the above this is a superb performance - probably the musical highlight of an exceptional disc. Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman is utterly inside the idiom of the piece and totally untroubled by any technical hurdles Bloch places in his way. There are many versions which one could compare. Almost at random I chose one by Michael Guttman (with José Serebrier and the RPO on ASV) which I have always rather liked. Side by side there is no contest - Gluzman; muscular, passionate and alert to Guttman’s more cautious fractionally less secure and tonally blander approach. The same differences apply to both the orchestral playing and engineering - the BIS disc winning clearly on all fronts. The central movement Nigun is quite spellbinding in its sense of improvisatory meditation and is stunningly rendered here.

Eric Zeisl is a composer only known to me by the Requiem Ebraico on this disc. That same work was the companion work to Franz Waxman’s Das Lied von Terezin - a powerful song cycle setting poems by children interned at Terezin. It was one of the last of Decca’s Entartete Musik series (Decca 460 211-2). Zeisl’s work is powerful and condensed - albeit the longest item here at 18:26 - distilling the grief and loss he felt at receiving the news of the death of his father and many friends in Treblinka concentration camp. The initial commission came, as mentioned above, to set the 92nd Psalm. This is an essentially celebratory Psalm opening with the words “ Tis good to give thanks unto the Lord”. Zeisl’s particular genius was to be able to find a way musically and spiritually in which he could both praise God and remember the dead. I find this fusion particularly powerful and moving. Given that the Decca performers are all German/European which is Zeisl’s cultural/racial - to pick up on Ernest Bloch’s tenet once again - background one might expect them to out-perform the Latin-American artists here. Not a bit of it, this São Paulo performance elevates the work far above the “filler” status it had previously. Not that I can speak Hebrew, but the text seems to be clear and certainly sounds idiomatic. More importantly the work is performed with fervour and commitment with the important solo lines sung with great beauty.

All of which brings me back to my earlier remark about repertoire duplication. Don’t dismiss this disc if you already own versions of the Bernstein, Bloch or Zeisl, I would consider the performances of those three works here now to be reference recordings. The Schoenberg too is excellent as I hope I have made clear; it is simply not the piece to which I would return on this CD.

Nick Barnard


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