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Bloch: Chamber Music with Viola

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BBC Review

Given the continued popularity of works such as Schelomo or Baal shem, it's easy to pigeon-hole Ernest Bloch as a composer whose exclusive preoccupation was with Jewish themes. But this marvellously performed recital serves to demonstrate a far wider stylistic perspective. Inevitably, Jewish-inflected cantorial writing is very much in evidence in the Suite hebraique, as well as in the Meditation and Processional. Yet the charming Concertino for Flute, Viola and Piano, composed in the same period, explores a surprisingly Gallic neo-classicism, while the unfinished Suite for unaccompanied viola is a more astringent essay combining elements of 12-note technique with Bachian gestures.

Without doubt the strongest work of all is the Suite for viola and piano, which was awarded the prestigious Coolidge prize in 1919. Here Bloch's emotionally charged musical language is given free rein in four large-scale and rhapsodically structured movements. The challenge for the performers is to breathe coherence and a sense of direction into the music - a task admirably achieved by Paul Cortese and Michel Wagemans, who deliver an interpretation of blazing conviction. Conversely Cortese and Wagemans resist the temptation to be over-demonstrative in the outer movements of the Suite hebraique, thus strengthening the occasionally four-square nature of the rhythmic argument.

Performance *****
Sound *****

© BBC Music Magazine 2001

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars 2 reviews
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Triumph for the Viola, Whatever That's Worth 6 Feb. 2001
By James M. Boubonis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Just kidding with that title... I really do like solo viola music.
Paul Cortese is possibly the world's foremost proponent of the solo repertoire of his instrument, one which usually gets stuck playing second fiddle to the violin in both ensemble literature and solo literature.
This is a very listenable set by Ernest Bloch, brought to life with Cortese's brilliant technique and flowing tone. My favorite is the 1918-19 Suite for Viola and Piano, but all these pieces are entertaining. Bloch was a very melodic composer, many of his works featuring lines influenced by Bloch's Jewish background. (One example of this is the Suite Hebraique, better known as a work for violin and orchestra; this version for viola and piano was written first and therefore is the original.)
The other musicians on the CD, pianist Michel Wagemans and flutist Maarika Jarvi (daughter of conductor Neemi Jarvi), are on par with Cortese in making this selection of music lively, vibrant, and beautiful.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ernest Bloch for Viola 6 Jan. 2010
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The year 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). A highly regarded composer during his lifetime, Bloch is too little heard today. Bloch was born in Switzerland , but he lived and composed in the United States for many years. In 1920, he became the first Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. Bloch is best-known for incorporating the idioms and ideals of Jewish music into his compositions.

This moving CD of Bloch's chamber music for viola features violist Paul Cortese, pianist Michel Wagemans, and flutist Maarika Jarvi. Cortese has made a career as a champion of the solo viola, for example: Finale: Sonatas for Viola, Milhaud: Chamber Music with Viola, Viola View: Paul Cortese, Violaand he plays beautifully here. Solo music for the viola is rare. Bloch's works make full use of the deep voice and yearning quality of the instrument. The five works on the CD all were composed while Bloch lived in the United States, (He moved back to Switzerland in 1930 but returned permanently to America in 1939), with one work dating from 1919 and the remaining works from the 1950s.

Bloch wrote deeply romantic music which tugs at the heart, especially on the viola. Most of the works here speak in the voice of passion and of religious mysticism. They are for the most part tonal but modal. They capture the wailing sound of Jewish cantilations. The works are properly played on this CD with a great deal of vibrato and schmaltz.

The best-known work on the CD is the Suite Hebraique for viola and piano (1951). This three-movement work also exists in two orchestral versions for viola and violin and in a version for violin and piano. The work opens with a soulful, chant-like rhapsodie. It is followed by a driven movement titled processional and concludes with a movement of religious conviction titled affirmation. At the time he composed the Suite, Bloch also composed two related movements, an introspective meditation and a more relaxed processional than that included in the Suite.

The three-movement Concertino for flute, viola, and piano (1950) is of a more whimsical character. It opens with a baroquely-influenced and dramatic allegro with a predominant flute part followed by a reflective andante. The finale is an unbuttoned movement which works to a humorous climax to strains much like American ragtime.

Bloch's suite for unaccompanied viola (1958) was his last composition. It is a complex composition of about 8 minutes which combines a Jewish idiom with the influence of Bach's unaccompanied music for violin and cello, and atonality. This remarkable work, in four short movements, is a fitting conclusion to the composer's career, even though it was left unfinished.

In 1919, Bloch composed a massive Suite for Viola and Piano which received the Coolidge Prize. It is a sprawling, emotive and improvisatory and modernistic work which is little-played today because of its length. The music is in the voice of eastern exoticism over and above its Jewish strains. Its opening movement begins slowly and wanders between moments of great power and quiet introspection. There is a pulsating, scherzo-like second movement and a flowing slow movement. The suite concludes with a lengthy, optimistic, and passionate movement marked molto vivo. This is a passionate, emotional work that will reward several hearings.

Listeners wanting to hear a rare 20th Century voice full of romanticism and featuring the beauties of the viola will enjoy this CD. Bloch is a composer who deserves to be heard.

Robin Friedman
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