Thomas BLOCH (b.1962)
Missa Cantate (1999), orch. Hubert BOUGIS [44:11]
Sancta Maria (1998) [7:01]
Cold Song (2009) [5:46]
Christ Hall Blues (1990/2005) [7:05]
Christ Hall Postlude (2008) [2:10]
Jörg Waschinski (male soprano)
Thomas Bloch (glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, keyboards, crystal bells, Waterphone, bells, ondes Martenot)
Jacques Dupriez (viola) [Sancta Maria]
David Coulter (musical saw) [Christ Hall Blues]
Paderewski Philharmonic/Fernand Quattrocchi [Missa]
rec. Bydgoszcz, Poland, 2002 [orchestra, Missa]; Bélaye, France, August 2003 [soprano track, Missa]; Neuilly Plaisance, France, 2005 [Sancta Maria, Christ Hall Blues], 2009 [Cold Song; Christ Hall Postlude]. DDD
NAXOS 8.572489 [66:13]

Though still fairly young, Frenchman Thomas Bloch has had a long and successful career as a soloist specialising in rare instruments, in particular the ondes Martenot, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, Waterphone, musical saw and crystal bells, all of which feature on this disc to varying degrees. According to Bloch's website, where information can be found about these exotic instruments, he has performed over 3000 times in 40 countries, and appears on more than 100 recordings - although in truth many of these are performances of pop, rock, musical theatre, film music etc, or as a producer. Apparently he has appeared in concerts or on recordings with the likes of John Cage and Milos Forman (the Amadeus film), but also cites collaborations with Radiohead, Gorillaz, Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull and various other pop 'luminaries' who may or may not be familiar to the art music fan. Since 1992 he has been teaching the ondes Martenot at Strasbourg Conservatoire.

The main attraction of this Naxos release will probably be for many the chance to hear Jörg Waschinski's soprano voice - Waschinski is one of only around a dozen known in the world today, according to the liner-notes. In fact, he actually appears up to twelve times in these works, thanks to Bloch's post-recording processing, which plays a considerable part in all the works on this disc - hence the complicated recording details above. In fact, all but the Missa Cantate were recorded not so much in the studio as in the laboratory; and even the Missa is a remix of sorts - Waschinski was recorded in a different country and a different year from the orchestra! One problem with this disc is that the recordings do sound as synthetic as they are.

Quite apart from the engineering side of the Missa, Bloch turned his original score for soprano and piano over to compatriot Hubert Bougis, well known in the world of film scores, for orchestration. As might be expected from someone whose work includes the dire French musical Notre Dame de Paris and films like Astérix et Obélix contre César, the result is nothing to write home about. Waschinski's voice is certainly spectacular, but the orchestra sounds half-hearted throughout - undoubtedly Bougis's fault in part - as well as under-rehearsed in places and badly recorded overall. The liner-notes, written by the unforgettably-named Johann Julius Sontag von Holt Sombach (who incidentally features as a composer for glass harmonica on a previous Naxos/Bloch release - see review), boldly say that the Introit "immediately induces a meditative state that invites one to listen to the work in its entirety". There is something of Górecki's Third Symphony here, albeit speeded up, but the trouble is that the Introit is perhaps the best movement of the ten; the music hardly moves on from here, lacking excitement, direction, development, even a sense of passion. In general, the Missa comes across as too long by half - maybe even three quarters.

Sancta Maria is scored for male soprano (four parts), viola, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, keyboards (synthesizer) and crystal bells. The male soprano must also sing in a baritonish register, and supply non-soprano vocal 'sound effects', which, unfortunately, contribute to a general feeling of pretentiousness and derivativeness.

Cold Song is a minor improvement. It is scored for seven male soprano parts, cristal Baschet and Waterphone - so-called and capitalised, incidentally, because it was invented by Richard Waters - although there is felicitously some water involved. The soprano voice is electronically modified in parts for extra colour, but on the whole nothing much happens musically.

The two movements of Christ Hall Blues are taken from a larger work, Christ Hall (Hommage à Marc Chagall). In French the title is pronounced like the French word 'cristal' (crystal/glass), and again there is a prominent role for the cristal Baschet in the opening Recitative, accompanying Waschinski's vocalise. The work is scored even more exotically, for twelve male soprano voices this time, plus musical saw, cristal Baschet, two glass harmonicas, bells and a pair of ondes Martenot! The Aria is more atmospheric, at least in a way that lends itself well to pseudo-arty film scores.

Christ Hall Postlude is a very short piece, and is purely instrumental, scored for musical saw, crystal bells and cristal Baschet. The bell tolls all the way through while the saw and cristal chip in now and then with odd noises. It is too short to be anything other than rather dull and pointless, and the way the bell's chimes are allowed to fade away almost to real silence, only to be digitally cut short for digital silence to be inserted instead, is nothing short of mindless. The liner-notes explain that the piece "draws largely on silence, enabling listeners to emerge gradually from the listening experience provided by this album" - if that sounds pretentious, listening to the music will not help.

All on the disc are world première recordings apart from the Sancta Maria. With the exception of the orchestra in the Missa, and a few occasions when the soprano's voice seems to drop off (deliberately?), the sound quality is fairly high, though this should come as no surprise, given the amount of processing the recordings have undergone. On the other hand, the editing is not all it should be - a millisecond or two seems to be missing from the beginning of some tracks, like the Credo, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei. The CD booklet goes into decent detail about the music, performers, instruments and Bloch.

This is not destined to be one of Naxos's great successes, but, though Bloch is uninspired and uninspiring as a composer - of art music, at least - he should do well churning out portentous-sounding film scores - he remains an excellent performer of peculiar instruments. For a chance to hear these rarities and Waschinski's soprano, this disc must be worthy of some consideration.


Not destined to be one of Naxos's great successes… uninspired and uninspiring.