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Ernest BLOCH (1808-1959)
Symphony in C sharp minor (1901-03) [54:38]
Poems of the Sea (1922-23) [13:35]
London Symphony Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 14-15 November 2011.
NAXOS 8.573241 [68:26]

Partly, no doubt, because of its colossal size, Swiss-born Ernest Bloch's Symphony in C sharp minor has been recorded relatively few times. Twenty years in fact separate this Naxos issue from versions on BIS (CD-576) and Marco Polo (8.223103). For the former, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra's recording under Russian conductor Lev Markiz is a solid account, although the somewhat reedy audio precludes it from any consideration for benchmark status. As trailblazing as they were in terms of repertoire, the old blue-front Marco Polo recordings are, in terms of audio quality and glamour, on a par with Naxos's earlier discs - that is, rather patchy. Yet there are numerous among them that are either still the only recordings available or much better than anyone who judges books by covers would be led to believe. One such disc is the Slovak Philharmonic's account of Bloch's Symphony under early Naxos stalwart Stephen Gunzenhauser. They whizz through it five minutes faster than either the LSO or the MSO, although most of that time difference is actually due to a speedy first movement. The first recording of the work was made by the Saint Louis Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Hart Baker in the 1980s for the Ernest Bloch Society, clocking in at a very trim 46 minutes.
Dalia Atlas and the LSO take the first movement considerably more slowly than any of the above, yet their reading never feels schleppend. On the contrary, such a considered pace allows for a clarity of detail not available on the BIS recording. Moreover, and without denying the quality of the MSO or the SPO, few would disagree that the LSO also have that extra bit of experience and sophistication that give them the edge, whilst Atlas's sheer love for Bloch's music - made flesh in several recordings, including two for Naxos and three for ASV, and in her position as founder of the 'Ernest Bloch Society in Israel' - gives her an insight into this music, in terms of both structure and beating heart, that Gunzenhauser and Markiz cannot match.
Anyone as yet unfamiliar with this lavishly orchestrated and detailed work will find imagining a symphonic Bruckner-Mahler-Strauss hybrid a good starting-point - echoes of all three resonate almost throughout. Thus, whilst Bloch had not yet found quite his own voice - attributable to his young age at the time - the Symphony is still a work of stunning maturity as well as youthful vigour and big ideas. Atlas considers it his greatest work. It is certainly a score of massive dimensions and complexity, requiring a Herculean effort not only of the conductor but also of every section of the orchestra.
After the sumptuous four-course Symphony, Poems of the Sea is pure H2O: refreshing, reflective, mysterious, elusive - a widely appealing work not unlike Sibelius's slightly earlier Oceanides. With Abbey Road's first-rate sound into the bargain, this Naxos recording makes runners-up of the competition in practically all regards.
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Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey