BLOCH Symphony in c#. Poems of the Sea • Dalia Atlas, cond; London SO • NAXOS 8.573241 (68:26)
Ernest Bloch’s C#-Minor Symphony has had two previous recordings reviewed in Fanfare. One of those recordings was by Lev Markiz conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra on BIS, the other by Stephen Gunzenhauser, leading the Slovak Philharmonic on Marco Polo, which, as far as I know, has not yet been transferred to Naxos. Both versionsRead more received positive notices, the Markiz from William Zagorski in 17: 1, the Guzenhauser, from Walter Simmons in 12:5. Those recordings date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, and, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been another one until this 2011 effort from Dalia Atlas and the London Symphony Orchestra.
There is, however, an earlier recording of the work, quite possibly its first, and one I haven’t heard, with Robert Hart Baker conducting the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra on an Ernest Bloch Society LP. Israeli-born conductor Dalia Atlas has made Bloch something of a specialty, having recorded at least three prior albums of the composer’s music.
The Symphony in C# Minor is an early work, composed over a two-year period between 1901 and 1903. The 21-year-old Bloch undertook the assignment as a graduation exercise, and worked on it under the supervision of Ludwig Thuille, with whom he was studying composition at the time in Germany. Technically, the piece is not Bloch’s first attempt at a symphony. As a 16-year-old, still living in Geneva, he composed the unpublished Symphonie Orientale. Still, for his first official symphonic effort as an adult, Bloch’s C#-Minor Symphony is an extremely ambitious work. It calls for a very large orchestra of four flutes, two of them doubling on piccolo, two oboes, with a third doubling on English horn, two clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, with a third doubling on contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, and an armory of percussion, including timpani, glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, gong, two harps, piano, and, oh yes, strings.
No wonder it took him two years to write it. Do they even make manuscript paper with that many staves on it? I guess they must. It would be a shame, of course, to assemble such a vast array of instruments on stage for a mere bagatelle, and so Bloch made sure it was worth the players’ time and effort—and ours—by giving them—and us—a symphony that lasts nearly an hour. Obviously, without even hearing a note of it, you can deduce from its date and scoring, and even the key of this behemoth, that Mahler and Strauss are its biological parents. C# Minor is not a key one encounters often in the symphonic literature, so it seems a little more than coincidental that the other big Symphony in the same key composed in the same year (1902) was Mahler’s Fifth.
Since Bloch and Mahler were both working on their C#-Minor symphonies at the same time, however, neither could have heard the other’s work, but it’s possible, if not likely, that Bloch became acquainted with one of Mahler’s earlier symphonies, the “Resurrection,” for example, which received a number of performances in Germany following its 1895 premiere in Berlin. This is noteworthy because not a few features of Mahler’s musical morphology appear in Bloch’s Symphony. There’s the alternation between serious, even portentous-sounding passages and intentionally vulgar and banal outbursts of blackly humoristic character. There’s also a reliance on march-like motives, brass fanfares, and chorale-like episodes of soaring lyricism and searing emotional drama.
Still, no one who is musically savvy could ever mistake Bloch’s C?-Minor Symphony for a work by Mahler, for Bloch’s harmonic language, general musical content, and approach to orchestral texturing, at this stage of his development, exhibit a remarkable presentiment of Debussy’s La Mer, which wasn’t completed until two years after Bloch’s Symphony. And even though Bloch’s time in Paris post-dates his time in Germany and the Symphony, the score is closer in sound and spirit to something emanating from the French school of the period—perhaps a symphony by Florent Schmitt or Guy Ropartz—than it is to Mahler or anything from the Austro-German camp. In any case, the work is quite an ear-fest for anyone who appreciates large-scale, post-Romantic/quasi-Impressionist scores.
Poems of the Sea was composed in 1922, which places it during the six-year term (1920–1925) Bloch served as musical director of the newly formed Cleveland Institute of Music. The work is a triptych of short tone pictures inspired by the sea poems of Walt Whitman. Bloch wrote the work initially for solo piano, and then scored it for large orchestra, as it’s heard on the present disc. Marco Polo previously recorded the piano version, played by István Kassai, while BIS released a recording of the orchestral version in 1995 performed by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. But the more recent, and perhaps more formidable competition in the orchestral version comes from Capriccio, which released a CD in 2004, containing the Poems of the Sea, plus Bloch’s Violin Concerto and Voice in the Wilderness with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Comparing both recordings of the Poems, I’d be hard-pressed to make a call based solely on performance. The call I would make, however, favors the new Naxos release, for a couple of reasons. First, Bloch’s Violin Concerto and Voice in the Wilderness have both been visited more often on record than has the C#-Minor Symphony on the present disc, so that more choices exist for the former than for the latter. And second, while I wouldn’t necessarily say that the London Symphony has anything over the Berlin RSO in the Poems of the Sea, Naxos’s newer recording, made at Abbey Road Studio 1, has greater dynamic range and depth of stage than does the Capriccio CD.
For those who may as yet be unacquainted with Bloch’s early Symphony from one or another of its very few previous recordings, a wonderful discovery awaits you in this new version. It’s hard to imagine this stupendous score from the pen of a 21-year-old composer being realized any more spectacularly than it is by Dalia Atlas and the London Symphony. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Partly, no doubt, because of its colossal size, Swiss-born Ernest Bloch's Symphony in C sharp minor has been recorded relatively few times. Twenty years in fact separate this Naxos issue from versions on BIS (CD-576) and Marco Polo (8.223103). For the former, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra's recording under Russian conductor Lev Markiz is a solid account, although the somewhat reedy audio precludes it from any consideration for benchmark status. As trailblazing as they were in terms of repertoire, the old blue-front Marco Polo recordings are, in terms of audio quality and glamour, on a par with Naxos's earlier discs - that is, rather patchy. Yet there are numerous among them that are either still the only recordings available or much better than anyone who judges books by covers would be led to believe. One such disc is the Slovak Philharmonic's account of Bloch's Symphony under early Naxos stalwart Stephen Gunzenhauser. They whizz through it five minutes faster than either the LSO or the MSO, although most of that time difference is actually due to a speedy first movement. The first recording of the work was made by the Saint Louis Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Hart Baker in the 1980s for the Ernest Bloch Society, clocking in at a very trim 46 minutes.
Dalia Atlas and the LSO take the first movement considerably more slowly than any of the above, yet their reading never feels schleppend. On the contrary, such a considered pace allows for a clarity of detail not available on the BIS recording. Moreover, and without denying the quality of the MSO or the SPO, few would disagree that the LSO also have that extra bit of experience and sophistication that give them the edge, whilst Atlas's sheer love for Bloch's music - made flesh in several recordings, including two for Naxos and three for ASV, and in her position as founder of the 'Ernest Bloch Society in Israel' - gives her an insight into this music, in terms of both structure and beating heart, that Gunzenhauser and Markiz cannot match.
Anyone as yet unfamiliar with this lavishly orchestrated and detailed work will find imagining a symphonic Bruckner-Mahler-Strauss hybrid a good starting-point - echoes of all three resonate almost throughout. Thus, whilst Bloch had not yet found quite his own voice - attributable to his young age at the time - the Symphony is still a work of stunning maturity as well as youthful vigour and big ideas. Atlas considers it his greatest work. It is certainly a score of massive dimensions and complexity, requiring a Herculean effort not only of the conductor but also of every section of the orchestra.
After the sumptuous four-course Symphony, Poems of the Sea is pure H2O: refreshing, reflective, mysterious, elusive - a widely appealing work not unlike Sibelius's slightly earlier Oceanides. With Abbey Road's first-rate sound into the bargain, this Naxos recording makes runners-up of the competition in practically all regards.
London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1901-1902; Munich, Germany
Poems of the Seaby Ernest Bloch
London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1922; USA
Symphony in C-Sharp Minor: I. Lento - Allegro agitato ma molto energico
Symphony in C-Sharp Minor: II. Andante molto moderato
Symphony in C-Sharp Minor: III. Vivace
Symphony in C-Sharp Minor: IV. Allegro energico e molto marcato
Poems of the Sea (version for orchestra): I. Waves: Poco agitato
Poems of the Sea (version for orchestra): II. Chanty: Andante misterioso
Poems of the Sea (version for orchestra): III. At Sea: Allegro vivo
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Adorable musicDecember 14, 2013By paul m. (east northport, NY)See All My Reviews"This symphony gets better and better with each hearing. The music has everything you would want in a wonderfully crafted symphony, beauty, pathos, ebb and flow. When it ends you want more, but then comes the wonderful description of the sea in the poems. Great stuff."Report Abuse