I have been interested in the music of Ernest Bloch ever since hearing a
Radio 3 broadcast of his opera Macbeth (Swiss Radio recording). Later
I heard Schelomo, the Rhapsody America, the Violin Concerto
(Menuhin) and the Concerti Grossi. I had heard the Sacred Service before
in an earlier Chandos recording (CD release - 1989) but it made little impact
at the time.
Jewish Musical Heritage Recordings have done a great service to music-lovers
and collectors (not always exclusive categories!) by reissuing these recordings
from the Decca archive. They comprise recordings made by Bloch during his
visit to London in 1949 and were associated with concert performances. The
celebrity point of the visit was the premiere of his 1949 Concerto Symphonique
for piano and orchestra. This was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival
and broadcast live on the then Third Programme (BBC). The soloist was American
pianist Corinne Lacomblé. The composer conducted. Unfortunately that
work was not recorded at the time .. at least not commercially by Decca.
Does it survive on acetate somewhere?
The concerts including a Prom offered Schelomo (soloist Nelsova),
Suite Symphonique (1944) and the first performance in London of Sacred
Service. The artists went into the Decca recording studios shortly afterwards.
Schelomo has been recorded by many cellists but this is something special
being both a vibrant projection of the music and one conducted by the composer.
Nelsova herself studied the work with the composer and of her three recordings
said she liked the one with him (the first) the best.
These are al lhistoric recordings in mono and they do not have the sonic
richness of a modern recording. They do however have an immensely more vibrant
musical richness (try Schelomo at 7:03). The years have taken their
toll on the sound quality which can be coarse-grained. This is especially
noticeable at the start of Schelomo. The ears soon adjusts to this.
The work itself is inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes and Vanity of Vanities.
Blochs own notes refer to the works momentary joy in sensual
pleasures and the sharpness and utter negation inherent in the realisation
that it is all evanescent. This sense of negation ends the work. Nelsova
seems to have absorbed the essence of the work and projects it with conviction.
I came to know the Dvorák Cello Concerto through a tape of one of
Nelsovas BBC broadcasts. It is good to hear her again and I can only
hope that she will be invited back to perform with the London and other British
The Three Sketches From Jewish Life (cello and piano)
are soulfully gentle, tentative and quietly exotic. There are no grand outbursts.
Instead the mood is sustained across all three brief movements. Nelsova brings
the same concentration and inwardness to her playing that we hear in Schelomo.
Sacred Service has not had that many recordings over the years. I
can recall the Chandos LP and was there a Bernstein version? The recording
quality is the best of the three works here and the choral singing comes
over with satisfying depth. The orchestral passages (track 5) come over with
a glittering savage grandeur. Interesting that the devotional atmosphere
is contrasted with a certain wildness. Aron Marko Rothmüllers
voice is darkly intense although at times his slight vibrato is a distraction
and he clearly finds Lift Up Your Heads a strain. At track 6 3:10 there is
an exotic march-like figure which seems to stride right out of a Vaughan
Williams (or Holst) choral score. There are many attractions in the score
but overall the steady pacing and consistently elevated tone of the work
does not consistently hold the attention .. or at least not mine. The performance
seems dedicated as would be expected.
I rather hope that JHMT will now seek out other archive recordings of Bloch.
Any chance of finding a decent tape of Macbeth (I predict widespread
interest in that one)? Concerto Symphonique is on a Vanguard CD. The
Rhapsody America is on Delos. I believe there is a commercial
recording of the Israel Symphony (Vanguard again) but I have never
seen a recording of the very early Symphonic Fresco
Helvetia. Interesting that Bloch chose to celebrate his birth and
adopted homelands in such an explicit way. Recordings of the Symphonic Suite,
Concerto Grosso for quartet and strings and the viola concertino would be
There are thorough notes by Alexander Knapp and an interview with Zara Nelsova
(happily still with us). Nelsova reminisces about the composer and her visits
to his Oregon home. This reminds us that in researching the life and music
of a composer CD booklets must not be ignored. The booklet is splendidly
detailed. Trilingual notes (English French German).
This generously-timed CD recommends itself very strongly to Bloch enthusiasts.
Nelsova fans will also do well to get the disc as will anyone concerned with
performance styles and the role of the composer as conductor/performer. For
the general listener Schelomo would be the best introduction to Bloch and
there are quite a few modern stereo recordings around although I doubt that
many can match the musical spirit of Nelsovas and Blochs partnership.
This disc represents a wonderfully rewarding project bringing largely forgotten
though important recordings back into availability.
I would be very interested to hear of any private non-commercial radio tapes
that may exist documenting Blochs conducting of or involvement in his
other works. It would be surprising if none existed given that he died in