About this Recording
8.554460 - BLOCH: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Suite hebraique

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Violin Sonata No.1
Violin Sonata No. 2
Suite hébraïque

A native of Geneva, Ernest Bloch studied violin and composition in Brussels and Frankfurt. His early music, notably the Symphony in C sharp minor and the symphonic diptych Hiver-Printemps, echoes Richard Strauss and the French impressionists, culminating in the lyric drama Macbeth, premièred at the Paris Opéra Comique in 1910. It was only with the 'Jewish Cycle' of works written over the next decade, notably the rhapsody Schelomo, that Bloch achieved his musical identity, transforming material of an overt Hebrew character into music at once emotionally direct and deeply personal.

The 1920s saw the development of a more compact language, though, as in the violin sonatas featured on this disc, the underlying 'neo-classical' style is offset by the music's natural intensity. In 1924 Bloch became an American citizen, and the epic rhapsody America (1926) and symphonic fresco Helvetia (1929) are ambitious attempts to redefine his musical heritage in its new context. The following decade saw several major works, including the Sacred Service (1933), Voice in the Wilderness (1936) and the Violin Concerto (1938), which synthesize these facets. The music of his final years is stylistically varied: certain works go back to traditional Jewish sources (Suite hébraïque); others pursue the neo-classical line with a new economy (Second Concerto Grosso), draw on atonality (Sinfonia breve) or even twelve-note writing (String Quartets Nos. 3-5), without lessening the spiritual experience which he believed it the composer's overriding duty to convey.

Bloch's preoccupation with Jewish melodies is at its most pronounced in the Suite hébraïque, completed in 1950. The pensive Rapsodie is permeated with its inflections, skilfully absorbed and recreated in the composer's succinct late style. Processional tempers its underlying march pulse with a direct eloquence, while Affirmation opens with dance-like measures, moving through a graceful central section before its opening idea returns for a decisive final flourish.

Written in 1921, the First Violin Sonata is among the most powerful of Bloch's large-scale chamber works. Its free-wheeling yet logical approach to tonality finds intriguing parallels with Bartók's contemporaneous First Sonata. The opening Agitato opens with a driving, toccata idea, with a mysterious transition to the second main theme (2'11"), a rapt Hebrew-inflected melody typical of Bloch at this juncture. The piano maintains momentum throughout the central section, where the opening material is developed extensively. The second theme returns withdrawn and distant, before the opening idea reappears (8'03"), merging into a rhetorical coda that leaves the anguished mood unresolved. One of Bloch's most haunting melodic inspirations, the Molto quieto opens with gentle piano arpeggios, over which the violin spins an unbroken cantilena, drawing in the piano's commentary as it proceeds. The first climax (3'24") dissolves into an almost Bartókian desolation, then an agitated strumming, before the expressive discourse resumes. Tension drains away in the introspective closing pages. The final Moderato is launched with robust, heavily-chorded dance measures. In what would seem to be a straightforward rondo movement, a withdrawn episode (3'00") looks back to, but does not resume earlier conflict. Instead, the music opens out onto a magnificent plateau of eloquence, derived from the opening movement's second theme (4'18"). There is a gradual return to the closing material and mood of the second movement, before the sonata draws to a tranquil but regretful close (7'57").

The two miniatures date from 1929. There is an understandably confessional air to Abodah (‘God's Worship’). The supplicatory violin line, derived from a melody associated with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is discreetly but pointedly accompanied by the piano, whose opening figure guides the piece through to the repose of its final bars. Mélodie, almost Fauré-like in its intimacy, finds the composer in ruminative mood.

Bloch's second violin sonata, Poéme mystique, dates from 1924 and is among his most coherent and resourceful conceptions. Cast in a single movement, virtually all its material derives from the unaccompanied initial eight-note phrase, Szymanowski-like in its yearning eloquence. Mysterious activity (2'04") heightens the emotional current before a hushed return to the opening mood. A pungent, folk-like idea (5'03") promises greater momentum, but calm is again restored. A sense of veiled unease now comes gradually into focus (9'14"), bringing the first real climax, from where the violin soars passionately over an ominous left-hand piano tremolo. At length, a more conciliatory tone is sounded, with the work's most extended melodic writing (12'57"), before the opening phrase ushers in the ascent to the work's emotional apex (17'35"), which dissolves in an eloquent flight of sound. The closing pages sustain this rapt expression, before the sonata is brought to an unexpectedly urgent close (22'08").

Richard Whitehouse

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