Don’t expect passionate, rhapsodic outpourings along the lines of Schelomo. Majoring on austerity and restraint, Bloch’s Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) post-dates his discovery of a bracing neo-classicism, best exemplified by the Concerto grosso No 1 and Piano Quintet No 1, minor masterpieces we ought to hear more often. Apart from the language of its ritual, the Sacred Service often sounds like Vaughan Williams. The music is four-square and at times obsessively contrapuntal, yet the scoring has a deftness and luminosity that may come as a surprise.
Once touted as the Hebrew Messiah – aficionados will note that Bloch’s own LPO version has resurfaced on the Pearl label – it is much less familiar today and tends to be theRead more preserve of specialist outfits like the Zemel Choir. This accomplished group, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has a pleasantly earthy sonority, with reedy sopranos and robust-sounding tenors. The downside is that Orthodox sensitivities have prompted some tinkering with the (Reform Jewish) text. Although the prohibition on pronouncing the name of the Lord originally applied only to the four-letter form of address Christians know as Jehovah, the practice here extends to substituting ‘Adoshem’ for ‘Adonai’. Anyone who grew up with Bernstein’s 1960 recording (Sony, 11/92 – nla) will find this a little odd. On the other hand, while Bernstein’s dramatic intensity and detailed nuancing are scarcely outshone, the piece does benefit from the superior production values enjoyed by Geoffrey Simon in 1978.
This is an early example of the Chandos wide-screen effect, the venue being All Saints Church in Tooting. The soloist, no secular operatic star but a genuine, baritonal cantor, is both eloquent and realistically balanced within the ensemble. The results should prove easy to live with.