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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Suite for Viola and Orchestra [33:37]
Baal Shem (arr. Hong-Mei Xiao) [14:52]
Suite Hébraïque [12:33]
Hong-Mei Xiao (viola)
Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV/Mariusz Smolij
rec. Hungarian Radio, Budapest, 2010/11
NAXOS 8.570829 [61:02]

This version of Baal Shem is an arrangement for viola and orchestra by Hong-Mei Xiao rather than the original work featuring a solo violin. Baal Shem explores Eastern European Hasidic traditions in all their expressive intensity. Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra remains one of the twentieth century’s most popular and important works for the instrument. The Suite Hébraïque, written in Bloch’s last decade, continues the composer’s fascination with Jewish themes. Both of these works were originally written for the viola with a piano accompaniment but are presented here in the composer’s own orchestrations.

To be frank, all the music is very similar in style, orchestration and melodic inspiration. All the ten movements from the three works run together in a seamless flow. It’s rather like listening to one huge suite. Despite this similarity, none of the individual movements ever drags and there is sufficient melodic inspiration to keep the listener engrossed for the duration. Indeed, it was a pleasure to play the disc right through without even a hint of tiredness creeping in. That speaks volumes for Bloch’s music. He did have a melodic gift, that’s for sure. When I listen to his music I often feel that Hollywood isn’t so far away. It conjures up those huge biblical epics by Cecil B DeMille such as The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah. Victor Mature and Charlton Heston are close at hand. The music has a bitter sweet, yearning quality to it. It’s very Jewish and Eastern European in nature and certainly very haunting. The use of a solo string instrument readily brings to mind another classic of the cinema: John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List. I’m sure that by now you get my drift. Anyone who has heard Schelomo will know exactly what to expect. This is autumnal, romantic music with a dark, warm glow to it. It fits the viola like a glove.

The Baal Shem arrangement brings nothing new to the music but at least it allows the soloist to present all of the works featured here on one instrument. The piece works very well on viola. Hong-Mei Xiao is a superb soloist but it’s a shame that she has been placed so far forward that the orchestral detail fails to register in many of the moments of interplay. The orchestral sound is mellow, pleasing and smooth but also thick and opaque. The engineers have failed to resist the temptation of zooming in to bring some of the woodwind solos forward. Without this, they would have been swamped somewhere in the distant mush but it still sounds unnatural and contrived. Despite this, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the basic orchestral sound other than a lack of sparkle at the top end. The Budapest Symphony Orchestra plays well for its conductor and soloist but more dynamic contrast and light and shade would have been welcome. It’s hard to tell whether this is a function of the engineering or the way the conductor approached the music.

This disc will bring a lot of pleasure to those who enjoy Bloch’s work. Hong-Mei Xiao is splendid and despite some reservations about the balance and lack of transparency in the recording the CD is attractive. It’s good rather than being extra special.
John Whitmore