BLOCH:  Sacred Service.  Schelomo.  Supplication.  Jewish Song.
Marko Rothmuller, bass-baritone; Dorothy Bond, soprano; Doris Cowan, contralto; London Philharmonic Orch. & Choir; Zara Nelsova, cellist/Ernest Bloch,  cond.& pianist

PEARL GEM 0164 (F) (ADD) TT:  69:03
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Three masterpieces led by the composer and featuring his favorite interpreter. I must admit I love Bloch's music, despite its patent lack of fashion. In an age which values irony and limits, Bloch takes big strides toward the epic and the heroic. There are those who can't quite forgive his passion or his willingness to take large expressive risks. There is, of course, such a thing as an acceptable daring which has to do with technical means and idiom. But the less safe form of courage cuts across style, and that's the neighborhood Bloch's art frequents. I know of no composer -- other than Beethoven, Berlioz, and Mahler -- as willing as Bloch to go right up to the edge of what he can get away with. Indeed, Bloch never fails for the negative virtue of Good Taste. He does at times step across the line from genuine power to empty portentousness, from real ecstasy to corny sentimentality, but these occasions are relatively rare. His best tells us that art is indeed a calling, rather than a career.

Right now, he survives in concert halls solely on the basis of one work, Schelomo, but his catalogue is filled with terrific stuff. His pupil, Roger Sessions, considered Bloch's string quartets among the finest of the century (and I'd agree with that judgment for four of the five), right up there with Bartók, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich. The prominence of Schelomo, however, has given rise to the idea of Bloch as a Jewish Composer -- that is, a composer who wants to express his own Jewishness in music. In fact, however, the number of Bloch's works inspired by Judaism is pretty small. Often works regarded as "Jewish" took off from other sources, including music of the American Indian, Mussorgsky, and Bloch's imaginary construction of Bali. Above all, Bloch strove to express himself, rather than a predetermined agenda. Notice that very few people talk about, say, Brahms's chamber music as the expression of a Christian composer, but many writers do this for Bloch. In many ways, it's as ridiculous as talking about a white actor as such winning an Oscar.

Perhaps because I grew up Jewish myself, I have great affection for the Sacred Service. I happen now to be preparing for a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, and parallels between the two works at this point seem to leap out at me: the quick mood changes amid a solidly coherent motific structure, the encyclopedic attempt to express several religious traditions at once, the near obsession with wringing every philosophic implication from each word. Although he includes a couple of traditional cantorial chants, the bulk of the music is Bloch's own, and the idiom is a curious amalgam indeed. One hears Mussorgsky, Debussy, Palestrina, and Beethoven at various points in the work. Bloch, with years of composing and teaching experience with major recognition, decided to return to the study of counterpoint. In fact, the major motif in the work derives from a traditional counterpoint exercise, sometimes known as the "Dresden Amen," a theme also developed (and famously) by Mozart. It paid off. Bloch produced a work of close to an hour's length from four main musical ideas, three of which, incidentally, you hear in the opening. Other than the body of cantorial chant, don't forget, there really was no such thing before Bloch began as "Jewish music," merely music written by Jewish composers. I can say that in my formal religious experience (such as it was) I have heard nothing like the opening to Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh. Bloch's idiom is a largely conscious construction, which draws ecumenically from many sources. This music for a Jewish service by a Jewish composer now stands in many minds as "Jewish music," such is the power of Bloch to convince us. However, given the breadth of the composer's sources, it strikes me as equally clear that limiting Bloch's music to such a narrow viewpoint would have displeased him no end.

There is really, in my opinion, only one other recording to refer to: Bernstein's with Robert Merrill and the New York Philharmonic. I have recordings by Abravanel and Geoffrey Simon as well, but I find them mainly adequate. I prefer the Bernstein for several good and bad reasons. First, it's in stereo. Second, I love Merrill's voice. Third, the recorded sound is superior. The primary minus in the Bernstein version is the use of a spoken voice, rather than the singing baritone and contrary to Bloch's preference, in the last movement. However, the Bloch has its minuses as well. First, it's sung almost entirely in English, and the translation is the usual Union Prayer Book horrible. The liner notes tell us that Bloch decided on the English to make the performance more "universal." On the other hand, to compose the work, he actually learned Hebrew, and his journals and letters are filled with anxieties over the meaning of each phrase in the service. The rhythms of the music fit the Hebrew better than the English. Second, the baritone soloist, Marko Rothmuller, who must assume a major role in the work (arguably, his part is more important than that of the chorus), sings through his nose. I don't care for the quality of his voice, and his place in the recording texture -- way forward -- emphasizes the quack. That aside, however, he sings very well, with great variety and sensitivity of phrasing -- more indeed than Merrill. However, Merrill convinces equally well, with a "Va'anachnu" that melts your heart. Indeed, when I think of great moments in singing, that's at least one from Merrill. Rothmuller does well, but not as gloriously. Merrill sings like a mensch.

Nevertheless, Bloch's performance is well worth having. If you know the Bernstein, this version may very well surprise you. Bloch's account is more direct, more "objective," more willing to let the music speak for itself. To give you some idea, it runs about 8 minutes quicker than Bernstein's reading. It's all business, and it lets you know that the sentimentality that sometimes comes through in Bloch's work doesn't belong to the man himself. Bernstein, on the other hand, lingers, caresses one phrase after another. It's a performance that takes great risks, that steps right up to the line of over-indulgence. For me, it never goes over, but I certainly understand the disagreement of others. The liner notes, by Harris Goldsmith, tell us that Toscanini influenced Bloch's conducting at this time, and I take the point. The reading is that dry, without always conveying Toscanini's rhythmic dynamism. Again, I prefer Bernstein.

However, the Toscanini approach works much better in Schelomo. I add this to my list of favorite performances: Rose/Ormandy (the one I imprinted on), Starker/Mehta, Navarra/Ancerl, Berger/Wit, Fournier/Wallenstein. I prefer these to the Rostropovich/Bernstein and the Nelsova/Abravanel. Rostropovich and Bernstein chew the scenery, and Abravanel seems asleep. Bloch, who really wasn't a conductor, nevertheless draws electric playing from the London Philharmonic. Or perhaps they make him look really good. Nelsova and Bloch play as one mind, with Nelsova uniquely sensitive to the shape and subtleties of each phrase. Although there's power enough, in this performance, the great climaxes of the work count for less than the meditative singing. This ain't DeMille Technicolor -- rather a Rembrandt etching.

Bloch loved Nelsova's playing. I like to think after the recording of Schelomo that he simply couldn't let her go and kept her for a bit of lagniappe: arrangements of two movements from the suite Baal Shem with Nelsova at the piano and Bloch on the piano. Nelsova's virtues in the Schelomo transfer here, transforming essentially miniatures into profound musical statements. Despite Bloch's decidedly non-virtuoso piano technique, you can't say he didn't know what he wanted. These performances go like an arrow for the heart.

S.G.S. (April 2002)