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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Macbeth (1903-10): Two symphonic interludes (1939) [13.37]
Symphony in E flat (1954-5) [25.09]
In memoriam (1952) [4.34]
Three Jewish Poems (1913) [24.41]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
rec. St Barnabas Church, Mitcham, Surrey, 14-15 October 1996
NAXOS 8.573290 [68.02]

Naxos have recently provided us with a superlative new account by Dalia Atlas of Bloch’s earlier Symphony in C sharp, but this disc is a reissue of an earlier Atlas CD formerly available on ASV recorded nearly twenty years ago - and which I bought on its original release.
 
The recording of the Symphony in E flat makes a good supplement to the much earlier symphony written some fifty years earlier, but the work itself with its neo-classical style is very different in mood from the late romantic score on the previous Naxos release. The first thing to be said about this Naxos reissue is that most commendably it preserves the booklet notes from the ASV original in the form of a long essay on the music by Alexander Knapp and a personal series of observations by the conductor on style, interpretation and performance. Naxos omit the translations of these notes into French and German which came with the ASV release, but make amends by adding a biographical note on the composer by Keith Anderson as well as the artists involved.
 
Bloch’s opera Macbeth, hardly ever performed nowadays, really does come into the sphere of the much-abused term “neglected masterpiece.” Sticking much more closely to the Shakespearean story than Verdi, it surely has only failed to make a place for itself in the international repertory because of its use of a French translation of the play rather than the original English — although I recall an excellent English-language performance in the 1970s which was relayed by the BBC and really deserves to be issued commercially). When audiences are quite happy to accept Verdi’s Italian version with its multiplied chorus of witches and tawdry drinking song, this linguistic purity seems a real pity. There have been a couple of complete recordings of the opera over the years taken from live performances, but one might wish that Dalia Atlas - who has edited the score - would let us have a studio version. As it is, the two interludes here which Bloch extracted and reworked from the opera some thirty years after its première whet the appetite for more. Both have elements of Hollywood film scores lurking somewhere in the background although Bloch was writing long before that idiom had become established. They are highly dramatic, with impressionistic depictions of mountainous landscapes and dark deeds if no very obvious Scottish idioms. Mind you, there aren’t many in Shakespeare – or Verdi, for that matter.
 
In her notes for the earlier Naxos release Dalia Atlas claimed that the Symphony in C sharp was Bloch’s masterpiece. In my review of that issue I demurred – the work is too derivative in places to be considered in that light – but it certainly has more character than the Symphony in E flat which shows rather too obviously its origins in Bloch’s intention to write a third Concerto Grosso. It begins atmospherically but soon branches out into a quasi-fugal passage which is rather too academic for its own good. The booklet notes quote from a letter Bloch wrote at the time he was writing the score, demonstrating his concern for structural matters which unfortunately seem to have overshadowed the native emotion of his music. He even resorts to the use of a twelve-tone row in the scherzo movement, despite his opposition to serialism as a system, and although its presence might not be suspected by a casual listener the work does tend to lack a central impulse. It is not a bad piece, by any means, with some lovely moments and even more effective extended passages; but it is not the best of Bloch.
 
The short In memoriam, on the other hand, is a real gem which deserves to be much better known. Again the music shows a concern with contrapuntal devices, but since the basic material is modal in character (with one passage at 2.26 which is incredibly close to Vaughan Williams) there is a greater sense of unity as well as emotional passion. It was written in memory of the pianist Ada Clement, and quotes a passage which she had once admired from a ‘teaching example’ written by the composer. Some teaching example!
 
The Three Jewish Poems were the first of Bloch’s works in which he set out to explore his Jewish heritage. There are no actual quotations from Hebrew melodies, but the atmosphere is oriental in the manner of Schelomo which was to follow two years later. Indeed one can hear the composer trying out various orchestral techniques which he was to employ in the later work. These are dramatic pieces rather than poetic ones, and none the worse for that. We happily seem to be in the midst of something of a Bloch revival – earlier this year we had superb new accounts of Schelomo and Voice in the Wilderness from Nimbus – and the rediscovery of this music is long overdue.
 
The orchestra play superbly throughout in what must have been totally unfamiliar scores and show no signs of limited rehearsal time. Daria Atlas obviously knows the scores backwards — apart from anything else, she is President of the Ernest Bloch Society in Israel — and succeeds in conveying her enthusiasm for the music at every possible opportunity. And the recording is rich and sonorous, just right for the rich orchestration of Bloch’s early period. This was always a superb release, and one is grateful to Naxos for reissuing it. One might be forgiven for hoping that there is more where this came from. At all events it should delight those who have already discovered the Symphony in C sharp and Poems of the Sea on the earlier Naxos release.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey