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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Schelomo (1915) [22.02]
Voice in the wilderness (1936) [26.20]
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
Epiphanie (1923) [21.37]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Kaddish (1914, arr. Ravel 1920) [5.14]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Benjamin Wallfisch
rec. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 2-4 January 2013
NIMBUS NI 5913 [75.13]

The coupling of Bloch’s two concertante works for cello and orchestra, Schelomo and Voice in the wilderness, is a familiar one from the days of LP. The earlier work is regarded correctly as a masterpiece, but Voice in the wilderness has come in for its share of stick over the years. The Stereo Record Guide referred to it in 1972 as sounding in places “for all the world like the soundtrack of a Hollywood Biblical epic” although they conceded that it had its good points where “its textures are so vivid and imaginative that such unworthy thoughts are promptly banished.” Nowadays, when we have become accustomed to treating the scores of Hollywood Biblical epics with the respect they deserve, this might be regarded as quite a compliment. This disc places Voice in the wilderness in pride of place as the first item on the CD.
 
It certainly deserves this accolade. It may be more loose-limbed and episodic than Schelomo, but its episodes breathe all the rich sense of romanticism that we associate with Bloch at his best. That’s especially when it is played with such a sense of commitment and enthusiasm as here by Raphael Wallfisch, with his son Benjamin conjuring up the full sense of oriental mystery from the resonantly recorded orchestra. I have remarked on many occasions in the last year in reviews for MusicWeb International’s Seen and Heard pages that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are on top form at present. In the lively and rich acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall in the Wales Millennium Centre we have confirmation of their peerless playing, with rich-toned strings to rival the best in the world today. Their playing at the beginning of the final section (track 6) is simply glorious.
 
In the old days of LP the coupling of the two Bloch works was regarded as sufficient measure for a disc, but these days we expect something more. Here we are given two other works both of which have a considerable degree of novelty value. For many years André Caplet was known purely as the composer to whom Debussy entrusted the orchestration of his Martyre de Saint-Sebastién, but nowadays he is more highly regarded as a composer in his own right. His Epiphanie with its oriental influences makes a good companion to the Bloch works. Caplet is a more delicate, less overtly romantic writer than Bloch, and his melodic material lacks the sheer memorable panache of the latter. Nevertheless Epiphanie deserves a more regular hearing, and this performance makes out a good case for the work.
 
It might be regarded as odd that any work by Ravel could be described as a novelty, but the composer’s own orchestration of one of his Mélodies hebraïques is not that well-known. It was omitted, for example, from Charles Dutoit’s and Jean Martinon’s complete surveys of Ravel orchestral music. Its appearance here makes a welcome bonus to this recital of Jewish-influenced scores. It is a most beautiful piece in Ravel’s most lyrical vein, and Raphael Wallfisch plays the vocal line on the cello with real feeling.
 
The disc concludes with a performance of Schelomo, where the competition regarding recordings is much fiercer. This version is up there with the best, and the orchestral outburst towards the end of the first section (track 11, 7.30) is delivered with a sense of excitement and passion which is absolutely overwhelming. The playing of Raphael Wallfisch is alive to the drama of the score. He also achieves a marvellously withdrawn sense of mystery at the beginning of the final section (track 13, 0.30) with some riveting sotto voce delivery of the lines.
 
There are no other recordings in the catalogue which present exactly this coupling, and only one other disc which gives us Caplet’s Epiphanie other than as part of a multi-disc anthology. As such the release is self-recommending; but it is far more than that, a really magnificent collection which presents four works with a linked ethos which complement each other superbly. The playing, both from Raphael Wallfisch, is really something special.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

And a second review ...
 
This is a very satisfying disc. It’s generous with its timing and in terms of its musical imagination. The repertoire selected coheres with three of the works linked by Jewish subject matter. The two Bloch pieces form natural partners as they did for Janos Starker all those years ago on a Decca LP (SXL6440) and only available now CD transfer in the massive box The Decca Sound Vol. 2 - The Analogue Years. Before that Zara Nelsova also recorded the two works. The Ravel Kaddish is extremely attractive and not often encountered in this form.
 
The Wallfisch family seem to have the capacity for fine music-making in their DNA. I say that while not discounting the labour that each musician here puts into preparing music that even in the case of Schelomo is not that common. When did you last hear any of these - even Schelomo - in the concert hall. I suppose they could have added a third Bloch work: From Jewish life as arranged by Christopher Palmer. That is what Natalie Clein and Hyperion did for their 2012 Bloch disc.
 
Having, in the last twelve months, attended two BBC NOW concerts - one at St David’s Hall and the other at Hoddinott Hall - I am enthusiastic about them. They are on, what I hope, will be a long-sustained high. This they seem to achieve regardless of conductor. I heard them in the finest performance I have heard of the Malcolm Arnold Symphony No. 5 last year with conductor Alexandre Bloch; a name to be watched closely. They were magnificent in every department. The strings in particular have a golden sheeny lustre. Mention of Hollywood is spot-on and the same thoughts occurred to me in their handling of Arnold’s voluptuous and even sentimental melodising for a very full string section. The orchestra’s dynamism under the American conductor Irwin Hoffmann was notable. Their Randall Thompson Second Symphony - which I rate highly - was glorious; romantic yet incisively rhythmic. Their El Salon Mexico was not as snappy and as zestful as it could have been but it was the first item on the programme. In the case of this CD I thought that the strings did not sound as lush as they did live. In the concert hall - two of the Cardiff halls - they sound sensational, approaching ‘Fabulous Philadelphian’ standards. Beat a path to Cardiff while they are on such exalted form.
 
I was delighted to see the Caplet Epiphanie getting some attention again. It’s still a rarity but is beginning to get a modest profile on disc. I first heard it in 2003 on an EMI Classics Debut series disc where Xavier Phillips was the soloist with Emmanuel Plasson conducting. Hubert Culot reviewed it on Aeon in 2008. There Marc Coppey was the cellist. I have not heard the Coppey nor the much earlier Frederic Lodéon/Charles Dutoit Erato LP STU 71368 (does anyone have this?). The Wallfisch Nimbus version, while admirable, does not have quite the edge and grip that the Phillips did but it is good. Epiphanie’s full title adds Fresque musicae d'après une légende Ethiopienne. Quite what legend was in the composer’s mind I do not know but as to the music, it was written just a couple of years before the composer’s death as a result of wounds and gas poisoning sustained while serving in the French Army during the 1914-18 War. Its clarity and magically airy textures have evidently been learnt from knowledge of Ravel as are those of, Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring and Foulds’ April-England. Speaking of Bridge, Epiphanie has about it something of Oration-Concerto Elegiaco. There are moments, especially towards the end of the Cortège section where Caplet delves into emotional angst. The bleak rat-a-tat side-drum ostinato rather defies the claimed programmatic association: The Journey of the Magi unless we are talking about the “cold coming” of T.S. Eliot’s ‘take’ but that lay decades in the future.
 
This is a good disc recorded in excellent sound. I hope that any sequel will include Florent Schmitt’s Introit, Récit and Congé of 1949. It is, in effect, a compact cello concerto from 1949 and has been quite neglected outside France. Within France there have been broadcasts by Navarra and Gastinel but as far as I know it has never been recorded commercially. That was until very recently when Timpani issued it (1C1212) in harness with the 1923 ballet music Le Petit Elfe Ferme-lOeil. There the cellist is Henri Demarquette.
 
Those with an affection for the further reaches of the cello concertante repertoire need look no further.
 
Rob Barnett
 

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