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Ernest Bloch »Concerto Symphonique for Piano and Orchestra« | Ernest Bloch »Concerto grosso No. 1 for Piano and String Orchestra« et al.
1 CD | 77min | Nr. 93.192
CD 1: » Ernest Bloch: Concerto Symphonique for Piano and Orchestra
» Ernest Bloch: Concerto grosso No. 1 for Piano and String Orchestra
» Ernest Bloch: Scherzo fantasque for Piano and Orchestra

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)

Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva on 24 July 1880, the son of a Jewish horologist. He was quick to show musical talent and at first concentrated his artistic endeavours on playing the violin, on which he became so adept that he was accepted as a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe at Brussels Conservatoire from 1897 to 1899. Ysaÿe, sensing that behind his pupil’s virtuoso brilliance lay a great creative potential, recommended him to continue the training in composition that he had already begun in Switzerland with Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. In 1900, therefore, he enrolled at the Conservatoire in Frankfurt/Main with Iwan Knorr, subsequently becoming a student of Ludwig Thuille, who reputedly possessed such technical know-how that his friend Richard Strauss, even when already established as a composer, still used to consult him on questions of counterpoint.

Ernest Bloch was 24 when he returned to Geneva, where at first a lack of musical activity found him having to earn his living as a bookkeeper in his father’s business. Slowly his career began to gather momentum: he conducted the orchestras of Lausanne and Neuchâtel, was present in Paris in October 1910 for the première of his opera Macbeth (which so fascinated the critic Romain Rolland), taught at the Geneva Conservatoire until 1915, and in the following year went to the USA as conductor for the Maud Allan Dance Troupe. When this enterprise collapsed, Bloch soon found his feet again: before long he was teaching at New York’s Mannes Music School, he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1920 to 1925 and spent a further five years as director of the San Francisco Conservatoire.

Here the Jewish community commissioned him to compose a “Sacred Service” which was so well received that Bloch’s financial future was assured without the need for further teaching commitments and he was able to devote himself entirely to his own music. This he did both prolifically and successfully. Over the years, early distinctions were augmented by further generous prizes and honorary memberships. His musical oeuvre became widely appreciated, particularly in the USA: his 70th birthday was celebrated in Chicago with a week-long festival, arranged by the most influential circles. Ernest Bloch died in Portland on 15 July 1959, nine days before his 79th birthday.

With never a doubt about his own capabilities or about the future, and with the knowledge that he had a potential circle of friends waiting everywhere who would help him out of any difficult situation; add to that an unshakeable belief in the relevant holy scriptures which resonated in his blood, as he said, “deeply, mysteriously, persistently, glowingly” – and Ernest Bloch must indeed have been a truly fortunate man.

Another point to note is that his oeuvre actually shows no trace of development. Even the repeated attempts to categorise it into various stylistic periods only succeed up to a point. It might appear convenient to see the Israel Symphony (1912 – 16), the Three Jewish Poems (1913) and the grandiose rhapsody Schelomo for cello and orchestra (1916) as the expression of his “Jewish” period, but in reality this phase lasted till the end of this life, with Jewish themes occurring constantly, even in works whose titles do not necessarily suggest a Jewish content. An example is the Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra, premièred by Corinne Lacomblé on 3 September 1949 at the Edinburgh International Festival and conducted by the composer himself. Here, particularly in the outer movements, the dominant feel is of a massive, static, selfcontained power in the music which comes across to the unprepared listener rather like background music for a scene in The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur.

Nor is Bloch’s neo-classicism confined to any particular period. Shortly after the Hebraic Rhapsody Schelomo already mentioned he wrote the second Concerto grosso for string orchestra (1952) whose pendant (with obbligato piano), composed thirty years earlier, is not far removed from the “epic rhapsody” called America with which the composer saluted his new homeland – a piece which even his greatest admirers admit is somewhat loud.

The Concerto grosso No. 1, given its first performance by the composer at Cleveland Music Institute on 29 May 1925, has nothing in common with such brash, “in-your-face” formats. This was the director of the Cleveland Music Institute writing academic music in disguise whose most striking features are the second movement, an intense Dirge, and the fugue, notable for its didactic rigour. “This is how to write a fugue” is what Bloch seems to be saying here, and rightly so. The movement radiates his self-assurance and conviction that everything is right, and leaves no doubt about its composer’s technical expertise.

Finally the Scherzo Fantasque saw the.light of day in December 1950 in the context of the festivities that marked Bloch’s 70th birthday. Bloch himself conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ida Krehm played the entertaining yet powerful virtuoso solo part, and once again, as with America, the audience could revel in the encyclopaedic knowledge of a composer who, while striking his own distinctive note, also revealed himself to be a connoisseur of Ravel and Gershwin and added a further dimension to his truly fantastic scherzo with a brief nod towards Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition.

Eckardt van den Hoogen

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