This disc presents a strange coupling, though I presume that the same programme was presented in the concerts from which these live recordings originate. For the life of me I can’t see any significant connection between the Bach cantata and Bloch’s Sacred Service
To be candid, the Bach offering need not detain us long. What is offered here is a smooth, modern approach to this popular cantata. Nowadays most collectors will prefer either a performance in period style, involving instruments of Bach’s time, or, at the very least, a performance informed by period style. This performance fits neither of these criteria. The choir sing well enough and the Israel Philharmonic play decently – the oboe obbligato in the penultimate movement is excellent, though the bassoon continuo is too obtrusive – but there are far better modern performances available. Mehta’s direction is unobjectionable – though no more than that. The soprano and baritone soloists are adequate but their tenor colleague, who sounds strained in the upper reaches of his voice, is not up to standard and it’s a relief that his contribution is confined to one recitative movement. I’m unlikely to want to hear this performance again.
Happily, the performance of the Bloch piece, which will be the main attraction to most collectors, is on a much higher level of attainment.
There have been at least three previous recordings, neither of which I have heard. One, dating from 1949, was conducted by Bloch himself (see review
). Another was made in 1960 and was conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Sony SM2k 47533). A larer version came out on a Chandos LP. I don’t know if any of these recordings is currently available.
The Sacred Service
was written between 1930 and 1933, to a commission to write a Morning Service setting for the Reform Temples of America. Bloch scored the piece for baritone soloist, speaker, chorus and large orchestra. The result is a substantial and manifestly sincere work in which Bloch responds to the Hebrew texts with strong, prayerful music. The choral writing is intense and the solo baritone has a demanding, often quasi-operatic role while the orchestration is colourful and often powerful. This was my first encounter with the piece but I would imagine that the only way to perform it is with commitment and conviction. Happily that’s precisely the sort of performance that is offered here. Thomas Hampson is an imposing and often impassioned soloist and he projects his part in just the sonorous way that the music demands.
The choir is equally fervent and they sing very well indeed. Not only is their full tone admirable in the louder passages of the work but also they prove themselves perfectly capable of delivering the quieter parts of the work sensitively. The one slight criticism I have is that their diction is sometimes rather sibilant. Mehta’s connection with the Israel Philharmonic goes back as far as 1969 – he was named Music Director for Life in 1981 – and he obtains extremely responsive playing from them. He plays the music for all it’s worth and ensures that all the performers convey the often-passionate tone of the music.
The one reservation I have concerns the delivery of the narrator, who appears in the fifth and final section of the work, speaking some prayers in the vernacular – in this case in English. For me he’s rather too histrionic, calling to mind rather too readily the stilted delivery of some actors in the biblical movies of Cecil B de Mille. However, his contribution is fairly brief and need not detract from an overall recommendation.
Though the recorded sound is perhaps a little closely balanced it’s spectacularly immediate. In many ways the documentation is very good. The booklet includes a note on the Sacred Service
by Bloch himself, which is illuminating though I would have welcomed an additional, independent note giving a little bit of historical information about the piece. The one snag is that the text of the Bloch piece is given in English and Hebrew but the English translation is in a completely different part of the booklet and the original text is not given in transliterated form so it will be very difficult for most listeners to follow the work except in a very general way.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent modern version of an important work that most people are unlikely to encounter except through the CD medium, so admirers of Bloch’s music should not hesitate to add this disc to their collection.