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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Bloch Concerto is a work of strong personality and its neglect is surprising. Szigeti’s pioneering record with Charles Munch from 1939 is once again available on Naxos, but it was almost 30 years before Menuhin put it on disc. The American violinist Zina Schiff is a protégé of Heifetz and is very much inside the Bloch idiom, both in the Concerto and in the shorter pieces on this disc. Recommended…

James Tobin
Classical Net, May 2008
The sound on this recording adds to its excitement but also gives me pause. In comparison with the vinyl recording of the Nigun section of Baal Shem, on which the violin tone glows and the orchestra is well balanced, the Naxos recording is forward rather than recessed. After a few hearings, I found myself turning down the treble on my pre-amp, which improved the sound of both the solo violin and the brass to my satisfaction. You might prefer it that way also. With this small reservation, I can recommend this release highly.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, February 2008

Works which inspire warmth and affection from this accomplished player

Roughly contemporaneous with the second and finer of Bartok’s two violin concertos, Bloch’s Concerto is similar in scale and in some small respects (the reuse in the finale of material from the first movement) similar in design too. But while Bartok’s masterpiece reflects the influence of indigenous musics from the composer’s own native region or thereabouts, Bloch’s summons tunes borrowed from his adopted land, or more specifically the American Indians. The Jewish element is undoubtedly there, though less prominent than in, say, Schelomo or the two other works included on this useful collection, Baal Shem (1923), named after the founder of the Chasidic movement, and the Suite hebrai”que (1952), written for a Jewish Covenant Club.

The later work is the more majestic in tone, the earlier one the more intense, and both are played with warmth and obvious affection by Zina Schiff who also contributes an intelligent booklet-note. The orchestral contribution sounds more dutiful than inspired (compare Jindrich Rohan on Supraphon in the Suite), likewise in the Concerto where Jose Serebrier—this is his second recording of the Concerto—is attentive to instrumental detail but falls short in bringing tutti passages fully to life. Schiff herself plays very well but occasionally overdoes the expressive slides, which in context sound more cloying than intense. That said, the performances more than pass muster, as do the recordings. Still, Hyman Bress (on the Rohan disc) would be my first choice for a coupling of the Concerto and the Suite. As to the Concerto on its own, Joseph Szigeti (under either Munch on Pearl or Naxos, or Mengelberg on Andante) is uniquely authoritative, a true benchmark. His performance “speaks” in a way that no one else’s quite does though Menuhin (under Paul Kletzki, EMI) and Sherban Lupu (under Ian Hobson, Zephyr) are also well worth hearing.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2008

I suppose it all depends how Jewish you like your Bloch Violin Concerto. Soloist Zina Schiff, who also writes the fine booklet notes, has little truck with the composer’s own stated thoughts on the subject. She clearly thinks his promotion of the “American Indian” is an evasion of the “Jewish” motifs in the work. To underscore the point she plays it as she means it, vesting the opening paragraphs with yearning Hebraic tone and expressive portamenti that are, in my experience, unique on disc.

It makes for songful, heightened tension and a definably different alignment in expressive weight. Thus passages in the central movement become, in her hands, a Chassidic chant, and Bloch’s statement that he had “no Jewish intent” in the concerto is put to stern test. She plays with technical assurance throughout, and she brings a strong sense of self-identification to bear—one that’s increased by virtue of her promotion of the Biblical in Bloch. She has José Serebrier to accompany, an old stager in this work who has already recorded it with Michael Guttman.

But for those who may not share this sense of the explicit there’s a more aristocratic approach—what I’d call the Szigeti-Totenberg-Bress lineage. Szigeti is best represented by the live performance with Mengelberg (Music & Arts CD720) though the premiere recording he made with Charles Munch in Paris is a powerful document in its own right. Totenberg recorded it in Vienna in 1961 with Golschmann on Vanguard 08404671. And Hyman Bress made a magnificent recording with the Prague Symphony under the much under-rated Jindřích Rohan in 1967 (Supraphon). All three adhere more closely to the more expressively “neutral” if I can put it that way. Thus Bress can seem to underplay the opening—but not a bit of it; he is magnificently in control of the rhetoric, and the pacing, of a superficially discursive opening movement. Totenberg plays the work, violinistically, better than it’s ever been played on disc; his accompaniment is not as imaginative as some others but his is a central name in the discography of this work. Szigeti of course is wonderful and again he makes no attempt to turn the concerto into a Hebraic vehicle; Mengelberg’s support is galvanic, though not as good as Rohan’s in the finale. Of course there are other recordings but Menuhin’s, for example, hasn’t quite stood the test of time.

The Suite Hébraïque is once again a vehicle for Schiff’s expressive certainties. She plays with maximum commitment and real eloquence. But turn to Bress and one finds him rather faster in the Rapsodie, his rubati subtly deployed and his tone multi-variegated. It’s Bress and Rohan who are more in tune with the dynamic contours of the second movement Processional—Schiff and Serebrier could have sculpted things rather more imaginatively here. And there are one or two sticky moments in the finale—awkward sounding after the command of Bress. Baal Shem is of a piece with Schiff’s playing throughout—committed and generous expression allied to fine technical command.

No complaints about the sound quality. Naxos has captured this orchestra and recording location before and does so again in exemplary fashion. This is a fine budget price disc sporting quality performances.

David Hurwitz, November 2007

This is a wonderful disc. Zina Schiff plays this music with exceptional passion and commitment, which is really what Bloch is all about. Her tempos in the outer movements of the concerto are a touch more relaxed than the competition, particularly the classic Szigeti/Mengelberg, but the performance has greater excitement than the (limited) modern recorded versions, not just because of the fine sound, but because Schiff really digs into the music and phrases with both spontaneity and unusual communicative depth. When the melodies have such strong character even the long first movement, which admittedly has a tendency to sprawl in less committed hands, sounds amazingly cogent. It’s clear that Schiff really knows the music and has no inhibitions when it comes to delivering the emotional goods. This is such a lovely work—it’s amazing that it gets played so infrequently.

In the shorter pieces Schiff is just as splendid. The final movement (“Rejoicing”) of Baal Shem lives up to its title as in few other performances, while the Suite Hebraïque’s opening Rapsodie is hypnotically intense. José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra provide ideally balanced, colorful accompaniments, and the engineering, as usual from this source, is terrific. If you’re looking for an inexpensive single disc containing all of Bloch’s major works for violin and orchestra, let this release be your choice. I wonder if Schiff also plays the viola? I’d love to hear these forces in Bloch’s spectacular Viola Suite.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

I discovered Ernest Bloch’s Violin Concerto back in the early days of LP’s when it was an extreme rarity, and felt deeply aggrieved that the musical world was so ignorant of such a impressive rhapsodic score. It was on the Supraphon label with Hyman Bress as soloist, and since then I have heard each of the few recordings that have appeared and none have been able to replace that early love of his performance. Completed in his native Switzerland in 1937 external influences surely came from Szymanowski’s concertos, his assertion that there are American Indian Songs is more in Bloch’s mind than in the actual hearing. The soloist sings as a free bird in the opening movement flying high above the luxurious undergrowth of orchestral accompaniment, at times vigorous in its activity, a virtuoso cadenza coming at the heart of the movement. Cantorial chants from the Bible are an inspiration in the slow movement, but so too are the exotic romantic French composers of the time. The finale is more colourful and outgoing, the soloist weaving a gorgeous web of sound around the orchestra. Add all of these ingredients together and wallow in your fantasy of discovering an idyllic tropical island. Baal Shem impresses me less, mainly because I feel Bloch’s urge to create a Jewish work came before natural creativity. Supraphon also introduced me to the Suite Hebraique for violin and orchestra, a late work originally scored for viola and orchestra but later adapted for violin. Nothing will change my admiration for Bress, but I guess the release is now long gone, and the Jascha Heifetz protegee, Zina Schiff, plays with an unending flow of gorgeous tonal quality, her intonation among the finest I have heard on disc. It would be all too easy to swamp the soloist in orchestral warmth, but Jose Serebrier has achieved perfect balance without the necessity of spotlighting Schiff. As for the Royal Scottish, this must rank among their finest recordings, and with Serebrier’s help has surely created the ideal sound Bloch would have wanted.

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