There was a time when the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was as highly regarded as any composer of the time. His chamber music was particularly highly valued; the Pelican book on "Chamber Music", first published in 1957, devotes a whole chapter to him. Bloch's music is now less often played ("Schelomo" for 'cello and orchestra, his best known piece, has not been heard at the London Proms for nearly twenty years) but recently there has been a resurgence of interest in his music on disc.
The Symphony in C# minor was completed in 1903. As an early work, it shows the influence of the leading composers of the day, in particular Richard Strauss. To modern ears the influence of Mahler is also apparent although, it seems, Bloch had not heard any Mahler when he wrote his symphony. When the second and third movements were first performed at the Basle Festival of Swiss-German music under the direction of the composer they caused a storm. One critic suggested that the "concert police" should be employed to lock up composers guilty of such prolonged torture. Nobody would respond in this way now, though. Indeed, the symphony turns out to be an attractive and approachable work which I can confidently recommend. This is because its many pages of impressive symphonic argument are built on real tunes which you will pick up even at a first hearing. The first movement, Dalia Atlas says in the informal notes she has written for this disc, is divided into three parts "which leave their mark owing to the deep and strong emotional expression, ranging from the dark abyss and sorrow to peaks of sweeping force and then back to the dark abyss". More technically, it is a sonata structure (the recapitulation begins at 15 mins 31 secs) with an extended introduction and a coda. In this movement there is an enormous contrast between Stephen Gunzenhauser's old recording for Marco Polo and Atlas's new disc. She squeezes every ounce of "emotional expression" she can out of the piece while Gunzenhauser, adopting much faster tempi, takes a far more classical and dispassionate view. Both approaches work well though it is, perhaps, Lev Markis with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra on BIS who gets the balance right and who may, in the long run, be the easiest to live with.
The slow movement is built on a fine melody stated at the beginning by the brass. Surprisingly, Atlas takes this movement rather faster than do Gunzenhauser or Markiz, transforming it almost into a march. Atlas's performance receives the most vivid recording and this pays dividends in this movement in particular.
The scherzo is another very attractive movement, vital and full of colour. The trio is built on a folk-like tune. There is not a great deal to choose between the three recordings in this movement.
The symphony is cyclic and, in common with so many Romantic symphonies, its finale is slightly less satisfying. It begins with a fugue (often a sign that a composer is running short of ideas!) and later on there is another fugato. Eventually the counterpoint gives way to a passage of dominant preparation which ushers in a full-scale statement of the slow movement's march theme. The main theme from the first movement also returns. Eventually, after the march has been heard one last time, this splendid symphony ends quietly.
All three currently available performances of this symphony have their merits then but, if I had to choose one, it would be the new Naxos disc. You may, though, find Atlas's approach to the first movement somewhat overwrought in which case the BIS recording would be the one to go for. That disc also has the advantage of including a fine performance of "Schelomo". Atlas's disc has the "Poems of the Sea", an attractive Impressionistic piece whose finale would have benefited from a slightly faster tempo.