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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Israel Symphony (1912-16) [30.47]
Suite for viola and orchestra (1917-19) [35.54]
Adriana Kohutková and Katarina Kramanišová (sopranos), Terezia Bajaková (mezzo), Denisa Hamarová (contralto), Michal Mačuha (bass),
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
Yuri Gandelsman (viola)
Atlas Camerata Orchestra/Dalia Atlas
rec.Concert Studio, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 18-22 October 2000 (Israel), Churchill Auditorium, Haifa, Israel, 10-11 May 2001 (suite)
NAXOS 8.573283 [66.48]

With this issue Naxos continue their commendable recycling of Dalia Atlas’s series of recordings of the music of Bloch for ASV. These two performances of different provenance include one of the composer’s major works in the form of the Israel Symphony. Unlike the two other symphonies already included in the series of reissues, the Israel is a work that was not consigned to total oblivion since Bloch’s death. A famous 1967 recording with Maurice Abravanel and his Utah forces held sway in the catalogues for a long time; I purchased it on CD a good few years back. It must be acknowledged however that the old Vanguard LP sound is decidedly dated now, and the current coupling with Bloch’s Schelomo may well duplicate alternative and more modern recordings in listeners' collections. An earlier CD reissue (Vanguard 72031), the one I own, coupled the symphony more enterprisingly with the 1948 Symphonic Concerto for piano and orchestra.
 
The Abravanel recording was let down rather badly by the vocal soloists in the final section of the symphony. They were too closely recorded in a manner which exposed their frailties rather cruelly. Unfortunately, although the female singers in Atlas’s version are more secure tonally than Abravanel’s, Michal Mačuha has a decidedly uningratiating tone which does not blend well with Bloch’s rich orchestration. The composer directed that the singers should be placed within the orchestra, and not treated as star soloists, but their placement here is rather farther forward than might be regarded as ideal although not so spotlit as in the Abravanel reading.
 
The style of the music has often been compared with the film soundtrack of a Biblical epic, but this is decidedly unfair since the score pre-dates by a good many years the Hollywood idiom that it so clearly inspired. At the time of writing Bloch’s music would have had none of hackneyed overtones that it acquired later. In her booklet notes for the earlier Symphony in C sharp minor Dalia Atlas acclaimed that work as Bloch’s greatest symphonic achievement, but she clearly understands and enjoys the Israel Symphony too. Her performance has all the engagement with the music than one could wish. The orchestra is not of the first rank, but they play well for her and encompass the difficulties of the score without problems.
 
The Suite for viola and orchestra is rather less well-known than the symphony, although it too has been recorded before, this time by Seattle forces conducted by Henry Siegl during the 1970s (Turnabout LP TV 34622S). Again, the recording here is a decided improvement on its predecessor, although it must be admitted that the work is rather diffuse musically and the Seattle reading gave more body to the orchestration. The style is much less overtly in Bloch’s Hebraic vein than the Israel Symphony, although the use of the viola does have something in common with Vaughan Williams’ employment of the instrument in his Flos campi. The old Siegl recording came in a coupling (again) with Schelomo. There are two later versions neither of which I have heard. The one from Centaur (CRC2150) is even less appropriately coupled with Bartók’s posthumous Viola Concerto. There's also the more promising all-Bloch collection on Cascavelle which includes the very rare Helvetia. The Suite's coupling here with another major Bloch score is welcome and the scoring with orchestra is a definite plus by comparison with the version for viola and piano — of which there have been a number of alternative recordings. Oddly enough Naxos released another version of this score on 8.570829 coupled with other Bloch works (Baal Shem and the Suite hebraïque). This was as recently as 2013. However, the Israel Symphony is a more substantial makeweight and apart from the old Abravanel reading is not otherwise available unless you opt for Svetlanov on Brilliant Classics.
 
Although the recordings here are not the last word on the matter, they are certainly much more than just a stop-gap until something better comes along. It is valuable to have them back in the catalogue. Naxos are to be congratulated on their collaboration with Atlas in exploring the music of this neglected composer (8.573241 (2011 project); 8.573290; 8.557151; 8.570259), and also for their willingness – as with the Symphony in C sharp minor – to expand Atlas’s recorded repertoire in the field. Now, while we are at it, we really need a new studio recording of the Sacred Service and Macbeth – how about it, please?
 
This reissue comes with useful booklet notes by Alexander Knapp, reprinted from the original ASV release. The words sung by the vocalists, isolated verses from Psalms 142 and 143, are given in the course of the notes on the music. I must confess to having missed this disc on its original release. I am delighted now to be able to welcome good modern recordings of both the Israel Symphony and the orchestral version of the Suite both of which surpass the older versions which I have in my collection.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey