Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Nigun for strings, timpani, trumpet and tam-tam (orch.Stakevich) (1923) [8:47]
Schelomo - Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra (1916) [24:42]
Israel - Symphony for orchestra and five soloists (1914) [34:16]
Galina Boyko; Natalia Gerassimova (soprano); Elena Alexandrova, Galina Borissova (alto); Anatoly Safiulin (bass); Alexander Kniazev (cello)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. Moscow, 1988. DDD
Ernest Bloch was born in Switzerland but ultimately after peripatetic years around Europe lived in the USA spending his last years in Oregon. While his music has a much broader span of styles he is most enduringly known for the music he wrote with what we now recognise as a Jewish turn of phrase. That said Bloch ‘created’ that sinuous sway in much the same way that Vaughan Williams ‘created’ and idiom that will be eternally associated with the English pastoral idyll. It must be added that both composers achieved much more than that. Bloch wrote an impressive grand psychological opera in Macbeth (recorded by Capriccio and Actes Sud). His string quartets are often searing. His gratitude to the USA for providing him with refuge and livelihood is reflected in his America - an Epic Rhapsody. His homeland is celebrated in a similarly discursive orchestral rhapsody: Helvetia.
The lavish arrangement of Nigun presents all the right credentials and fairly smokes with exotic intensity. We might easily be listening to a score for a Hollywood Biblical epic of the 1950s. Svetlanov might well have turned in a reflective Planets on another Brilliant reissue but this is the conductor under full sail and with a heady ecstatic charge zinging through these pages. Nigun is one of three pieces making up Baal Shem - Three pictures from Chassidic Life. The imperious trumpet plays its cantorial role - part high priest, part priapic symbolism.
Kniazev’s Schelomo has sumptuous immediacy as a recording and while the effect is lavish this does not cloud detail. Just listen to the passage from 2:28 to 3:20 and the abrasive brass calls at 9:05. This is indeed a rhapsodic piece where orchestra and soloist appear caught up in the moment from bar to bar proceeding under the impression of instinct even if much of the score is soulfully introspective rather than extrovert.
The Israel Symphony is something of a rarity and it is a pleasure to hear this refulgent work in such vivid sound even if it occasionally has a rasping lisp as in the trumpet assaults at the start of the second movement. That first movement has an Elgarian lassitude mixed with some very grotesque and satisfying sounds which recall parts of Sibelius’s Tapiola and Tempest. There is genuine rampant excitement at the extended climax at 10:00 onwards; something which Abravanel on his 1960s Vanguard CD did not achieve. The full-throated romantic violins at 13:00 are simply magnificent. The singing in the finale is suitably distanced and mystical and that tangy brass writing is a strange blend of Bax and Sibelius.
The Israel Symphony has had few recordings; this for me is its best. I should add that Brilliant have given us the work in a single uninterrupted 35 minute track. It’s a pity each movement was not allocated its own track.
There are decent notes by Malcolm Macdonald. Sadly the sung words of the finale are not provided.
This is Bloch at his most cinematically vivid. Svetlanov conspires to heighten the effect with a typically perfervid approach. It will appeal among others to those who warmed to the Timpani disc of Bloch’s lush pre-WW1 works with voice and orchestra. Here his impressionism begins to marinade in semitic material. This Brilliant disc makes a very fine bargain indeed. There is nothing routine about these performances and recordings.  

Rob Barnett 

Bloch at his most cinematically vivid, the effect heightened by Svetlanov’s typically perfervid approach.