Classical CD Reviews

ERNEST BLOCH: Schelomo; From Jewish Life; Voice in the Wilderness; MAX BRUCH: Kol Nidrei – Natalie Clein, cello/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Ilan Volkov – Hyperion

Bracing performances of cello masterworks from Jewish traditions.

Published on September 5, 2012

ERNEST BLOCH: Schelomo; From Jewish Life; Voice in the Wilderness; MAX BRUCH: Kol Nidrei – Natalie Clein, cello/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Ilan Volkov – Hyperion

ERNEST BLOCH: Schelomo; From Jewish Life; Voice in the Wilderness; MAX BRUCH: Kol Nidrei – Natalie Clein, cello/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Ilan Volkov – Hyperion Records CDA67910(Distr. by Harmonia mundi), 61:30 *****:

Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo is a work steeped in sacred Hebrew tradition and is musically dramatic. It is a much performed work that may be performed even more but for the somewhat theatrical nature of the score that also places appreciable demands on the orchestra. For Schelomo and all the works in this collection, it is probably quite helpful to have a performer and conductor who understand the Jewish culture, the sacred writings that inspired these works and the modalities of which they are constructed.

This recording has all these elements and they are most exemplified by the playing in Schelomo. “Schelomois Hebrew for Solomon (the great King) and the work portrays the majesty of his bearing and some of the angst of the decisions he had to make. The central melodies heard within are a joint product of Bloch’s imagination as well as some actual Ashkenazi chants that the composer grew up hearing during high holy days. The cello, played with deep emotion by British cellist Natalie Clein, represents Schelomo (Solomon). The orchestration in this rhapsodic piece is bombastic at times, introspective at others and ultimately moving.

Bloch’s From Jewish Life in this arrangement by Christopher Palmer is a very pleasant surprise. Originally for cello and piano, this is a series of small portraits of sacred Jewish devotion; Prayer, Supplication and Jewish Song. Each is based on a traditional prayer mode and the spare orchestration for cello, harp and strings, combined with the simple original tunes, is quite beautiful.

Bloch wrote Voice in the Wilderness nearly twenty years after Schelomo and it is scaled in similar scope and forces. The tone of this is second big work for cello and orchestra is similar in its grandeur and theatricality to Schelomo. Originally conceived as a six movement work for cello and piano, Visions et Prophéties, this work also relies on several Ashkenazi modes and an overtly “middle eastern” tone. Where Voice in the Wilderness differs from Schelomo is in its more supplicant, darker nature – as opposed to the “heroic” motif of Schelomo. While the title conjures up imagery and quotes from some of the Psalms, Bloch sought a title that would describe the very pliant and, occasionally, isolated sound of the solo line; in Bloch’s mind, a “voice in the wilderness.”

Max Bruch, another great mid-twentieth century German composer wrote music that occasionally reflected the Jewish culture around him, frequently causing patrons and performers alike to presume that Bruch was, himself, Jewish. Kol Nidrei is based on a chant Bruch learned from the Cantor Abraham Lichtenstein and, in part, on the melody in a setting of Psalm 137 by Isaac Nathan. Kol Nidrei bears some structural commonality with the Bloch works in that the solo cello is a central figure, the persona of a cantor in this case. This fairly brief work is restful, slow and beautiful and the mood is prayer-like and not at all bombastic.

I have heard many recordings and live performances of Schelomo and a couple of Kol Nidrei before. This recording compares very well with anything I have heard before. Natalie Clein is a wonderful cellist with a warm tone who plays with a true symbiosis to this music. The BBC Scottish Symphony under the gifted Israeli-born conductor Ilan Volkov plays very well. I do believe that these works require someone well versed in the sound of modality and the culture of the Jewish people to really convey these works well, instead of just playing them. Surely, this whole album sounds decidedly “Jewish” and serves as a comprehensive collection of these plaintive works. I happen to love the sounds of this culture, not to mention great cello artistry. I strongly recommend this disc for anyone who feels as I do.

—Daniel Coombs




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