Thomas BLOCH (b. 1962)
Missa Cantate (1999) [44.11] (1, 9, 10); Sancta Maria (1998) [7.01] (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6); Cold Song (2009) [5.46] (1, 4, 7); Christ Hall Blues (1990/2005) [7.05] (1, 8, 3, 4, 11); Christ Hall Postlude (2008) [2.10] (8, 5, 4)
Jorg Waschinski (counter-tenor) (1); Jacques Dupriez (viola) (2); Thomas Bloch (glass harmonica) (3); Thomas Bloch (cristal Baschet) (4); Thomas Bloch (crystal bells) (5); Thomas Bloch (keyboards) (6); Thomas Bloch (waterphone) (7); Thomas Bloch (ondes martenot) (11); David Coulter (musical saw) (8); Paderewski Philharmonic Orchestra (9); Fernand Quattrocchi (conductor) (10)
rec. Pomeranian Philharmonic Hall, Bydgoszcz (Poland) June 2002 (Missa Cantate); Labo T, Neuilly Plaisance, France 2005 (Sancta Maria, Christ Hall Blues), 2002 (Cold Song, Christ Hall Postlude)
NAXOS 8.572489 [66.13]

Thomas Bloch is perhaps best known as a performer on unusual instruments such as the Ondes Martenot, glass harmonica and cristal baschet. He has participated in quite a number of musical collaborations, from Mozart to John Cage to Radiohead.

This disc shows another side to him, that of composer; his style reflects the eclectic nature of his musical personality. His Missa Cantate was written in 1999, originally for voice and piano but was orchestrated by Hubert Bougis, an arranger best known in the film world. The other works on this disc use Bloch’s own orchestrations, though they are for far smaller groups. I am unclear as to why Bloch felt it necessary to have someone else orchestrate the piece; the liner-notes do not elucidate this point.

Certainly Bougis’s highly effective orchestration has given the Missa Cantate a lovely surface gloss but having listened to Bloch’s smaller pieces for unusual forces, you can’t help but wish that he’d use some of this aural originality in the Missa Cantate. As it is, the work’s main claim to fame is that the solo part was written for the high counter-tenor (billed as a ‘male soprano’) Jorg Waschinski. The work fully exploits the remarkably ethereal tones of Waschinski’s upper register, and relies quite heavily on Waschinski’s ability to project supremely other-worldly tones.

In fact, Waschinski’s upper register - he seems to go up to soprano top A on the disc - is fascinating, pure and beautifully produced, but lacks the variety of colouration that a female soprano would bring to this repertoire. It is worth bearing in mind that a soprano, even a low soprano, who sang a role going up to top A, would usually have a few notes above this to spare, to allow for some variation; I suspect that Waschinski does not. There are times, especially in the later movements, when his voice seems to be under a great deal of stress.

The piece owes its balance between voice and orchestra rather too much to the recording engineer and I was curious whether Waschinski’s voice was large enough to project over what appears to be quite a large orchestra.

The opening movements are very much in the style of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony; the text of that work gives a variety of thoughtful layers. Bloch uses the text of the mass, including one or two sections not normally set. Rather frustratingly, the text is not included in the booklet and Waschinski’s diction leaves something to be desired, so it is tricky to work out what the texts are.

Though the Missa Cantate has moments of drama and stress, the overall feel is of an ambient take on Gorecki and as such may have its charms. The performance from the Paderewski Philharmonic Orchestra under Fernand Quattrocchi is exemplary.

The remaining shorter pieces on the disc are all smaller in scale and use a variety of remarkable instrumental combinations. All are musically quite slight but Bloch’s imaginative use of his unusual instruments provides a charm of its own. For Sancta Maria Waschinski provides all four vocal parts, accompanied by viola, glass harmonica, cristal baschet and crystal bells. Then Cold Song has Waschinski again multi-tracked seven times, with cristal baschet and waterphone. Christ Hall Blues uses Waschinski twelve times, accompanied by musical saw, cristal baschet, glass harmonica, bells and ondes martenot. Finally the Christ Hall Postlude uses just musical saw, cristal baschet and Crystal Bells.

For me, this disc appealed mainly for Bloch’s interesting use of unusual instruments - including Waschinski’s high counter-tenor - rather than from an intrinsically musical point of view.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Byzantion

This disc appealed mainly for Bloch’s interesting use of unusual instruments.