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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Music for Viola and Piano
Suite for viola and piano (1919) [30:06]
Suite for viola solo (1958) [8:06]
Suite Hébraïque (1951) [12:15]
Two Pieces (1951): Meditation [3:43]; Processional [2:10]
Paul Neubauer (viola)
Margo Garrett (piano)
rec. 2001, Sonic Temple, Roslyndale, USA
DELOS DE3498 [56:27]

The tapes for this disc were recorded in 2001 then promptly disappeared for fifteen years. When they emerged it turned out that they had suffered no degradation. Just as well since, according to the two artists, they "featured playing that they felt presented their best possible efforts to bring these works to life." I can well believe that.

It is my loss that until now I had not heard the playing of the gifted Margo Garrett but Paul Neubauer was not unknown to me. I was just discovering the composer Arthur Benjamin in the early 1980s and at last had my curiosity about Benjamin's 1945 Viola Sonata satisfied by a November 1981 broadcast by Neubauer and pianist Helen Davies. I was initially impressed with his Walton Viola Concerto but slender and shapely as his tone was in that case, the reading has left me less and less impressed: it's too slender and too self-consciously beautiful by half. In the case of this Delos disc Neubauer is in another and most triumphant league. Perhaps the music speaks to him more directly and touches off a deeper, darker treasury of reactions.

The first instrument that you may associate with the composer Ernest Bloch is the cello. That's natural enough given that the cello is the lead in Schelomo. With a little arranging witchery there are enough works for an all-Bloch CD for cello and piano as Nimbus have proved. The Suite for viola and piano was slightly better known to me in its version with orchestra. My introduction to it came via a Turnabout LP (TV-S 30371) where the violist was better known as a conductor, Milton Katims. Katims was principal violist of the NBC Symphony and conducting protégé of Toscanini. The Seattle orchestra was in that case conducted by Turnabout/Candide fixture, Henry Siegl. More recently the Suite has been successfully recorded by Hong-Mei Xiao, a violist who has also brought out a tangy collection of British viola works for Delos. Her Bloch Suite is on Naxos in its orchestral version. Also worth remembering is the Gérard Caussée's orchestral CD on Cascavelle: unhackneyed in its coupling and certainly approachable.

In the half-hour four-movement Suite Bloch set out to portray the Far East: Java, Sumatra and Borneo. That exotic subject matter lends savour but in the hands of Neubauer and Garrett is not over played. Perhaps Bloch influenced Godowsky in his Java Suite (review review) but there were many other works in this vein both before and after 1919. The Bloch is a strange work and resplendent in its strangeness. It has a tinge of Korngold about it as well as echoes of Sorabji. The passion of the viola part and of Neubauer's playing of it is never in doubt. Clouds of smoke and incense, fragrant and acrid, wreathe the Rapsodie movement of the Suite Hébraïque. The little Processional is a fervent and determined little piece with a skirl or two along the way. The final portrait, Affirmation, is a brave and proud rhapsodic piece. The two short pieces which end the recital comprise a Meditation which is discreetly tinged with the smoky passions that are the burning tinder of Bloch's two pieces for cello and orchestra: Schelomo and The Voice in the Wilderness. Processional is more of an arioso. If this is a march then it is one in which the celebrants raise their voices in joyous song as they step forward. Both pieces are attractive. The Suite for viola solo is presented here in a single track of four interconnected passages. The last of these is an Allegro Deciso which ends the piece abruptly - the equivalent of falling off a cliff edge into silence. Bloch was working on this piece at the time of his death. Despite the interrupted breath of that last Allegro deciso episode it is good that we have this work emotionally cool as it is by comparison with the other works. Arid expectations of a solo viola are tempered somewhat by Neubauer's concentrated expressive approach.

There is another viola disc of Bloch on Laurel and yet another on ASV with Paul Cortese. Each of those two overlaps with this one but are differently coupled. This Delos disc is a truly excellent account of Bloch's chamber music for viola. Neubauer pours on the emotion and never falls into routine page-turning mode. Both he and Margo Garrett convince the listener that this music has won them over and can win us over. Compulsory listening for enthusiasts of Bloch or the viola. The Delos booklet is in English only and the essay is by David Brin.

If you would like to explore some unaccustomed and rewarding directions in Bloch beyond Schelomo then try the following. His early impressionistic orchestral works has been recorded on Timpani. The gaunt and bleakly dramatic opera Macbeth is on Actes-Sud and Capriccio. The leonine Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra has been recorded by Dinova on Chandos, Mitchell on Vanguard and Lin on SWR Music and Micah Yui on Laurel.

Some things have been going well for Bloch in recent years. These include the publication by Cambridge University Press of "Ernest Bloch Studies" by Alexander Knapp and Norman Solomon (257pp, 2016) and the Naxos series of his orchestral works largely under the informed and eloquent tutelage of Dalia Atlas. This disc pours on the intensity and will leave the listener impressed. There is more to Bloch than Schelomo and the Violin Concerto.

Rob Barnett



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