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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Concerto Symphonique [44:06]
Concerto Grosso No.1 [23:34]
Scherzo fantasque [9:26]
Jenny Lin (piano), SWR Radio Orchestra, Kaiserslautern/Jiřī Stárek
rec. SWR Studio, Kaiserslautern, Germany, 2006
SWR MUSIC SWR19420CD [77:06]

I find Bloch’s Violin Concerto to be a deeply satisfying work, one of the very best produced in the 20th century, and so it was with some curiosity that I started to listen to this piano concerto, Bloch’s sole large scale concerted piece for piano and orchestra. It has already been reviewed here, in a performance on an expensive, difficult to obtain Laurel CD and here on a Chandos disc. I note that this performance was recorded twelve years ago, and I have found a Hanssler Classics issue of it reviewed in Gramophone in 2008.

The work is largely percussive, some might say violent - just listen to the massive chordal opening; however, it is not an unmemorable piece, in fact as well as using the piano as a true percussion instrument, Bloch brings his melodic gift to bear with great effect. It is quite easy to think of piano concertos that combine these two features: Prokofiev’s second and the sole concerto by Vaughan Williams, for example, but this is not to say that they occupy the same melodic world. Bloch was his own man, and many of his works exhibit what some would say is an ethno-Judaic melodic cast, which I personally find very appealing. There is no slow movement as such, but three minutes into the second movement Allegro Vivace, the music morphs into a rather static meditation which blossoms into a luxuriant passage before adopting a hieratic brass-laden style that I expected to finish off the movement, but in fact it quietens again, and the piano wanders into a musing end. The third and final movement has a quite memorable march-like tune at its core, the music sounding defiantly martial, and I like it very much and consider that it brings the work to an effective close. The work is often dominated by the brass sections of the orchestra, and so achieving a good balance between the piano and orchestra must be quite a task for the recording engineers. Fortunately, Jenny Lin has the necessary muscle for the piece and the engineers have served both her and the orchestra admirably.

The Concerto Grosso No.1 is a substantial piece that has been recorded several times over the years. It is a neo-Baroque work, and I don’t usually respond to a reversion to classical forms in 20th century music, and so was intrigued to find that I enjoyed it. The slow movement is particularly memorable, sounding positively romantic with a Hebraic melodic turn. The third movement shows Bloch in rustic dance mode, eventually becoming lightly exuberant - it is a tuneful delight. Unfortunately, the last movement is a fugue with the composer’s expertise in contrapuntal writing on display, and whilst it is doubtless very clever, it leaves me cold.

The disc finishes with the 9 minute Scherzo fantasque, a piece in three parts, the opening and closing ones being of a moto perpetuo character and the middle section, sombre and brooding. It is a slighter piece than the concerto, and not as memorable, though clearly from the same pen.
Jim Westhead

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