on 22 September 2013
Playing this new CD for the first time was also the first time I had ever heard the music. I played it three times in succession, to give myself a chance to assess it properly. The Symphony takes a few plays to get into, with a quiet start building to some impressive climaxes. The end, similarly, fades out in a way reminiscent of Sibelius's 4th and 6th symphonies. It is never less than interesting, and those first few plays lead me to believe that it will repay regular listening in the future. The three Poems of the Sea have a more immediate attraction, being full of good tunes, and complement the Symphony perfectly. Happily Naxos leave a ten-second gap after the Symphony, and the quiet start to the first, Waves, fits well with the end of the Symphony. When, though, will producers learn to put fillers first; the Symphony, after all, is the main course and should so often be the last thing one hears. Still, if it has to be ordered like this, this issue is as near perfect a fit as there is.
Excellent recording, and very good performances make this an easy recommendation on all counts.
on 2 October 2013
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.
on 25 August 2014
This is just stunning music! At times like Mahler on speed, or the perfect combination of Respighi and Mahler. Composed while Bloch was still a student in Germany, this is typical music of a young composer, there's a lot of everything. Orchestration is as rich as ever, and there are lots of ideas. What makes this work stick out is the expertise with which it is all handled. Many a composer would have everything turning into muddy loudness with this amount of inspiration, but Bloch really gets the most out of the orchestra with a balanced result.
The LSO under Dalia Atlas, who is something of a Bloch specialist, handle this score with remarkable control and enthusiasm, given that this must be new music to them. But then sight reading and performing with little rehersal is something of their speciality. If there is sound or two that migt be just a bit edgy, one must remember that the demands put on the players are extraordinary. Highly recommended!
on 14 February 2014
New to me, and bought on speculation, as I love to try new things, this music has given me great pleasure. It rewards the listener with a wide compass of emotional, vibrant and melodic moods, and I am only surprised that this composer's music is not more widely featured in concerts or broadcasts.
on 14 June 2015
I purchased this version of the symphony quite out of curiosity and based on some of Bloch's shorter works - especially his well known Jewish Rhapsody "Schelomo". The symphony is interesting and somewhat idiosyncratic, but without any ideas that could be considered generally outstanding. The Poems of the Sea are more than merely make-weights for the disc. Their musical imagination reward concentrated listening.
The music is well recorded in the manner that is Naxos, and is efficiently played by the LSO under Dalia Atlas - a newcomer to my experience. The disc is good value and, in particular, the symphony is one that I look forward to getting to know more deeply with further playings.