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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Symphony in C sharp minor (1900) [54.38]
Poems of the Sea (1922) [13.35]
London Symphony Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
rec. Abbey Road Studio 1, London, 14-15 November 2011
NAXOS 8.573241 [68.26]

Neither of these works rank among Bloch’s most famous compositions - the ubiquitous Schelomo and the Sacred Service being the best known. Both have however appeared on CD before, including a version of the symphony from Naxos’s sister label Marco Polo in 1992. Dalia Atlas has long enjoyed a reputation for her interpretations of Bloch - in her booklet note for this release she contends that as a composer he “was second to none in musical history”. The two recordings here testify to her enthusiasm.
 
While I may not rate Bloch quite as highly as Dr Atlas does, I must agree that his music is generally and seriously underrated. The Sacred Service is a still unrecognised masterpiece, and his setting of Macbeth is one of the great Shakespearean operas of all time - and much truer to the dramatist than was Verdi. All of that said, the early Symphony in C sharp minor, written when the composer was a mere twenty years old, is not really in the masterpiece category although it is very good indeed as an example of late romanticism. The influences of Mahler, and more particularly Strauss, are everywhere apparent: in the lush harmonies, the complex textures and - it must be admitted - the prolixity of the music itself. The first movement begins with an extended slow introduction of Brucknerian solemnity. Bloch then launches into the main Allegro agitato with a close reminiscence of Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. At the end the slow material from the introduction returns, almost giving the impression that the Andante slow movement which follows is taking up where the first movement left off. This slow movement is more Mahlerian in style, with a suspicion of Wunderhorn idiom in the lazy lilt of the rhythm. It builds to a grandiose climax which anticipates the first Part of Schoenberg’s Gürrelieder in its contrasted chords swinging backwards and forwards. The latter work, in fact, lay some years in the future when Bloch was writing.
 
The perky scherzo begins with fanfares resounding through the orchestra like the opening of the third movement of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony. What follows is a headlong scamper through the orchestra which is quite un-Brucknerian in style. Again one notes elements that anticipate the work of later composers: oddly enough Rachmaninov in his Second Symphony and the final movement of the Symphonic Dances, as well as plunging octave lines that recall Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and perky woodwind interjections out of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (6.06). The finale begins with a fugue but this is quite unbuttoned and avoids any hint of Reger, finally disintegrating with some positively Mahlerian wails from the wind and the return of the swinging ‘Schoenberg’ chords from the slow movement. Indeed all the thematic material from the earlier movements reappears in a final broad peroration which occupies the last five minutes of the symphony. It is crowned by enough resounding tam-tam strokes to open two dozen Rank movies before a brief final subdued conclusion.
 
Dr Atlas in her booklet notes makes big claims for the symphony, citing her opinion that “this is Bloch’s greatest and best work.” Well, it is not quite as good as that - it is clearly the work of a composer who has not yet shaken off his early influences - but she does make out a really good case for the music. The playing of the LSO is far superior to that of the Slovak Philharmonic under Stephen Gunzenhauser on the pioneering old Marco Polo release (8.223103), although the elaborate string divisions in the highest register betray signs of understandable unfamiliarity with the score (for example, at track 1, 2.23 and track 2, 7.54).
 
The much later symphonic suite Poems of the Sea is something much closer to a masterpiece, an impressionistic seascape to rival Debussy and Bridge. It draws its inspiration from a poem by Walt Whitman, in which it has parallels in Vaughan Williams and Delius, but it is a purely orchestral response to the poem and not a setting of it. Indeed the final third movement, with its swinging dance rhythms, has quite a ‘folksy’ feel; and the second movement Chanty has the appeal of a traditional song. The surging music sometimes reminds this listener of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan, not at all a bad model.
 
The main rivals to the performances here come from BIS, who have recorded both the symphony (under Lev Markiz - CD-576) and the Poems of the Sea (under Sakari Oramo - CD-639). Both of those, well played and conducted and superbly recorded, are by no means outclassed by this new Naxos release; but the coupling of these two works is not otherwise available and at the cheaper price this disc will, I hope, win new admirers for the Songs of the Sea. Those who are tempted by this work will find the symphony highly enjoyable too, especially in this committed performance. By the way, the cover design is one of the best I have ever seen on a Naxos release, superlatively conveying the nature of the music.
 
One word of warning: if this disc leads you to explore the remainder of Bloch’s music, avoid at all costs the highly praised Bernstein recording of the Sacred Service. This performance substitutes a completely rewritten spoken text for Bloch’s original in the final movement, which not only obliterates the composer’s intentions but is of such toe-curlingly awful quality that when I first encountered it I was put off the music for years.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey
 

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