Back in Bloch

I was so glad to discover this post on Ernest Bloch today at On An Overgrown Path.

Although, especially with the Schubert C Major Quintet (right up there with the Matthew Passion of Bach for greatest achievement of any kind  by any human being in history in my book), I have to express moderate scepticism for Colin Hampton’s comment that “I would put Bloch in front of Schubert and Brahms anytime,” I doubt you’ll find a more pro-Bloch blog than Vftp.

Sadly because his music tends to be little known and less understood, my opportunities to perform his music have been scattered over the years. Most recently, I conducted Schelomo in Glasgow with the fine young cellist Barbara Misciewicz, a piece I first played with orchestra during my studies at the University of Wisconsin. To return after many years to a piece that meant so much to me musically and personally and to take a gifted young soloist through it for the first time seemed to mark a closing of one cycle and the beginning of another. You can read some of my thoughts about the piece and the Glasgow project here and here).

After learning and performing it several times as a cellist, I was so enthralled and inspired by Schelomo, and so excited to have studied it with Parry Karp, whose knowledge of Bloch’s music is unparalleled, that the next year, I begged my colleagues in the Strelow Quartet to make his epic String Quartet No 1 our first project (programmed alongside Mozart’s final quartet in F major). Bloch’s 1st  is a huge piece, over 40 minutes long, making it one of the major statements in the entire quartet literature, and, having spent so many hours living with it, I can’t help but passionately second the Colin Hampton quote in Pliable’s post today “Bloch’s) string quartet No 1 is to me one of the great works in this world.” To me, it is one of the most powerful documents of its time, full of rage, despair and hope. Our guide through the piece again was Parry, cellist of the Pro Arte Quartet, whose performances and recordings of the Bloch quartets did more to raise awareness of his chamber music than any group since the Grillers. The piece is a voyage through life and the world- a summing up of everything the young Bloch seemed to understand and believe, full of truths both painful and consoling.

Another Bloch work I travelled many miles with was the Three Nocturnes for Piano Trio. What is it about composers and Nocturnes in groups of 3?(I’m conducting the Debussy Nocturnes next week).  I don’t know if Debussy’s set of orchestral nocturnes was an influence or not, but I find it unlikely. Where Schelomo and the First Quartet are huge, epic pieces (I harbour a secret plan to orchestrate the Quartet one day), the Nocturnes are terse and compact. Wonderful examples of the art of the miniature, which always dazzled our audiences. I’m hoping we can get the Nocturnes on the schedule in Ischia next summer.

Next month, I turn to Bloch again- this time to another work in the epic vein, his Suite for Viola (or cello) and Orchestra. By the time we finish the concert, I will have said “no, not Suite Hebraique, but the long one that nobody plays” at least 500 times. Although written for viola, Bloch’s friend Gabor Rejto arranged it for cello and orchestra (or piano), presumably with Bloch’s blessing. In addition to offering a wonderful new piece for cellists, the Rejto arrangement also makes life a little easier for the orchestra and conductor because the cello is a bit more able to project than the viola (the Bartok Viola Concerto also works more easily with cello and orchestra, but we try not to rub these things in. If more violists knew and played the Suite, maybe we’d stay clear of that one for them).

The soloist for the Suite will be none other than Parry Karp- how fun for me that having just completed one Bloch project with a young cellist discovering his music for the first time, I now turn to a collaboration with the musician who took me into Bloch’s world for the first time so many years ago.

Now, hear check out a sample from Parry’s CD of Bloch’s works for cello and piano, reviewed here and available here. The pianist is Francis Karp. Buy the disc! This is the Meditation Hebraique, written for Casals, who, as Pliable pointed out, once said “The best composer of our times is Ernest Bloch.” The OES and Parry Karp perform the Suite for Cello and Orchestra on Saturday, October 4th.  Come to our concert.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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2 comments on “Back in Bloch”

  1. Erik K

    Bloch for the win. Easily in my top 6 or 7 favorite composers. I harbor a secret desire to perform Avodath Hakodesh in a Christian church, because I think it’ll blow everyone’s minds. And can we get the Israel Symphony on a program somewhere? Especially this year…60th anniversary and all. A terribly neglected composer. Great post.

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Great article on Ernest Bloch from the Oregonian

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