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Hyperion Records

CDA67439 - Bloch: Violin Sonatas
CDA67439

Recording details: February 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 2005
Total duration: 68 minutes 13 seconds

'Bloch's first Sonata given a 'devastating performance' … If there is any justice, this fine new recording will win these undervalued works new friends. Please try these sonatas, whether or not you already know them' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'With fine engineering, realistically balanced, and excellent annotation, this is a digital front-runner' (Gramophone)

'Mix Bartok, Debussy and a dash of Lisztian bravado and you'll get something very close to Bloch's folksong-inflected, post-Romantic sound-world. Intoxicating performances guaranteed to set the pulse racing' (BBC Music Magazine)

'In both works, Shaham meets Bloch's extreme technical demands without flinching; and his timbral control is dazzling throughout (his ability to spin silk at the top of his register is especially astonishing). Pianist Arnon Erez seconds him admirably, whether the score demands that he engage in intricate give-and-take with the violinist or that he slip off into a different world entirely' (International Record Review)

'Played with lean intensity and dead-centre intonation reminiscent of the young Heifetz, these neglected works come fizzing off the page to mesmerising effect' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hagai Shaham…(compared to Isaac Stern's recording of the first sonata) plays with similar intensity if not with equally ecstatic frenzy … Hagai Shaham, who has championed the music of violinist-composers Joseph Achron and, more recently, Jenö Hubay, produces a steely rather than a sumptuous tone. His grandiloquent oratorical flourishes, as well as his edgy technical display, therefore flash like tempered steel, however, leaving the least trace of coldness … So another disc or so from Shaham could encompass everything Bloch wrote for the violin (and perhaps even include the concerto). Given the strong appeal of this initial offering, that's a consummation devoutly to be wished. Highly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Shaham impresses in all aspects of these sonatas. His manner is fiery, his tone is full-bodied from a top of great purity to a bottom deep and resonant, and he tosses off the virtuoso passages with aplomb. Erez is a full partner, sometimes coming close to usurping the lead, which can be all to the good here. He roams the keyboard with assurance, playing with crisp exactitude and full-bodied tone' (ClassicsToday.com)

'Here Shaham and Erez play with wonderful empathy and understanding, undoubtedly this is music that they feel with a deep passion. The aching Molto quieto is also very beautiful whilst the concluding Moderato really kicks off a whirlwind of activity that has Shaham on true top form…this whole disc is a definite must for lovers of solo violin especially those with a penchant for Bloch's unique music' (Classical.net)

'It's a credit to Shaham and accompanist Arnon Erez that this work carries such a punch. Bloch's knowledge of the violin—he was taught by a master in Ysaye—means that the passagework is frequently taxing, but with this completely under his fingers Shaham has no worry' (MusicOHM.com)

'Hagai Shaham confirms a remarkable talent, which goes far beyond the technical performance … This disc is essential at the head of a rather thin but high level catalogue [of this repertoire]' (Diapason, France)

'Bloch of emotions: vehemence and serenity, stud and certainty, poetry, brutality, sensuality, spirituality: the interpretation which is delivered to us by Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez is of an incredible richness … But it is especially the interpretation of the five works which confers all its richness. There Hagai Shaham signs one of the most beautiful versions of these partitions: all is translated in a way subtle and inspired by a bow of an absolute control, a sumptuous sonority and a vibrato of an infinite diversity… in this album, Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez, which one will never say enough the virtues of executants and especially of interpreters, reach the level of excellence' (Classica, France)

Violin Sonatas
Agitato  [11'38]
Molto quieto  [9'36]
Moderato  [8'31]
Andante moderato  [4'18]
Animato  [3'38]
L'istesso tempo  [5'19]
Animato  [6'51]

Hagai Shaham has already demonstrated his thrilling virtuosity and luscious tone in his Hyperion recordings of Jenö Hubay, and here he shines in the richly expressive music of Ernest Bloch. The two violin sonatas are contrasting works (Bloch described No 1 as embodying ‘the world as it is’, while No 2 represents ‘the world as it should be’): the first is in three movements and balances violent and ritualistic motifs with passages of dream-like calm; the second is more simple and lyrical, characterized by long melodic lines and stylistically not unlike Szymanowski. The three shorter works are also lyrical and, like most of Bloch’s music, exemplify the Jewish influence on Bloch’s musical idiom.

Lovers of the violin and early twentieth-century Romanticism will revel in ravishing music performed with such an irresistible zeal and flair.

This is the first of two discs which will encompass Bloch’s complete music for violin and piano.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva in 1880 and died in Portland, Oregon, in 1959. His compositions fall into five broad phases: unpublished œuvres de jeunesse (1895–1900); the first European period (1901–16), culminating in the ‘Jewish Cycle’ (1912–16); works written successively in New York (1917–20), Cleveland, Ohio (1921–5) and San Francisco (1925–30); the second European period (1930–38); and, finally, the American West Coast period (1939–59).

The violin was Bloch’s instrument. He started learning as a child with teachers in Geneva and subsequently with Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels. Bloch’s talent as a teenager was such that he looked destined to become a professional performer, but Ysaÿe encouraged him in the direction of composition. Apart from the Violin Concerto of 1938, all of Bloch’s mature violin works were written during the 1920s and 1950s. The compositions on this CD fall into three distinct areas: two large-scale but widely differing sonatas; two shorter lyrical pieces; and a work whose Jewish elements can be traced to a specific traditional source.

The first pair of works comprises the Violin Sonata No 1 (composed between February and November 1920) and Violin Sonata No 2, which Bloch entitled Poème mystique (completed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in November 1924). Bloch described the Sonata No 1 as ‘the world as it is: the frantic struggle of blind and primordial forces’, and the Poème mystique as ‘the world as it should be: the world of which we dream; a work full of idealism, faith, fervour, hope, where Jewish themes go side by side with the Credo and the Gloria of the Gregorian Chant.’

Bloch stated that his tormented Violin Sonata No 1 in three movements was written soon after World War I: ‘the terrible war’ and ‘the terrible peace’ that followed it. The first movement, Agitato, begins with a violent, ritualistic motif on the violin, combined with intricate cross-rhythms in the piano, depicting the ‘atmosphere of battle’. The second subject provides a dream-like contrast. An interesting modal feature is Bloch’s use of motifs based upon an eight-note scale, comprising the intervals of two disjunctive minor tetrachords separated by a semitone: A–B–C–D–Eb–F–Gb–Ab. The second movement, Molto quieto, was written after Bloch had read a book about Tibet. (Although he never visited the Far East, its impact upon him finds expression in several works.) The composer has described this movement as mournful and restless at the beginning, leading to a spectacular outburst of emotion which then abates. The flowing cantilena is interrupted by a striking passage of tremolo pizzicato. In the piano part ‘chime’ effects are produced by the bitonality of the broken chords spread across two hands. Bloch described the last movement, Moderato, as a barbaric march – a vision of an angry, pitiless, primitive deity; but at the end there is an atmosphere of resignation, and then the acceptance of peace. Originally, Bloch intended to end this work with a different finale, but it was rejected on the grounds that its colour was too Jewish and therefore incompatible with the first two movements. The significance of this is that the Sonata No 1, dedicated to the American music critic Paul Rosenfeld, was written soon after the ‘Jewish Cycle’, and Bloch was keen to establish a new idiom for himself. Bartók, whose first sonata for violin and piano appeared at about the same time, performed Bloch’s work in Europe with different violinists during the early to mid-1920s.

Audiences at this time found the Sonata No 1 bewildering, and Bloch, sensitive to their sense of shock, felt the need to compensate by writing something serene, ecstatic, spiritual, mystical. His Violin Sonata No 2 (Poème mystique) was conceived in one movement divided into several contrasting sections. The composition of Poème mystique was triggered by a dream that Bloch had after a mild overdose of Veronal, following a period of intense crisis and illness. The main musical characteristics are the long melodic lines (the first of which comprises rising and falling open fourths and fifths), and the use – about half-way through – of a prominent motif borrowed from the works of the ‘Jewish Cycle’, followed almost immediately by the Gregorian Credo in the violin part in octaves, the Gloria of the Mass Kyrie Fons bonitatis shared between piano and violin, and a traditional Amen on the violin. The Latin text appears above the musical notation. This simple and lyrical work, similar in some ways to the slow movement of the Piano Quintet of 1921–3 and stylistically not unlike Szymanowski, was dedicated to the violinist André de Ribaupierre (also a student of Ysaÿe) and Beryl Rubinstein – colleagues of Bloch at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

The second two works, Mélodie and Nuit exotique, were composed in 1923 and 1924 respectively, and both are in ternary form. The first and third sections of Mélodie are Fauré-like in their lyricism, whereas the middle section, with its dotted rhythms, is more impassioned. This work, too, was dedicated to Ribaupierre who gave its first performance at the Cleveland Institute in May 1923, with Bloch accompanying. Nuit exotique, a somewhat larger piece, was one of several written at this time in which Bloch explored the theme of ‘night’. The long sensual theme with which the work begins and ends is separated by a middle section consisting of shorter and sharper motifs. Josef Szigeti was the dedicatee.

Since the early years of the twentieth century, Bloch had been struggling with a full-length biblical opera on the story of Jezebel (which had earlier catalysed the composition of the six works of the ‘Jewish Cycle’). In order to revitalize his enthusiasm for this enormous project once he had settled in New York in 1917, Bloch searched the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–06) for traditional melodies from all over the Jewish world and notated most of them in a manuscript book that he entitled Chants juifs. In the margins, he wrote colourful comments as to the suitability of certain tunes as leitmotifs for characters in the opera. Although Jézabel never progressed beyond a mass of manuscript sketches, now preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, Bloch used many of the collected materials in other works, including the final work on this disc, Abodah (1928).

At the beginning of 1928, Bloch heard the young Yehudi Menuhin perform in San Francisco, and was so moved that he felt impelled to write a work for him. The result was Abodah (God’s Worship), subtitled ‘A Yom Kippur Melody’, completed in December of the same year and immediately premiered by Menuhin and Louis Persinger in Los Angeles. The melody is a traditional Eastern European Ashkenazi synagogal chant, Vehakkohanim, rendered by the cantor during the ‘Musaf’ (‘Additional’) Service in the early afternoon on the Day of Atonement – the most solemn festival in the Jewish calendar. The text commemorates the ancient rites performed by the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, and describes the tense scene as the High Priest utters the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, in the Inner Sanctuary. (The High Priest, in each generation, was the only Jew who had the religious status and authority to pronounce this, the most sacred of the seven traditional Hebrew names for God.) There are twenty basic motifs in this chant which vary not only in length and character, but also in Jewish modality. In Chants juifs, Bloch marked certain ascending and descending phrases in the Ahava Rabba mode (akin to the Arabic Maqam Hijjaz, or the harmonic minor on the fifth degree) for special attention. The transfer from voice to violin necessitated a number of alterations to the original chant in terms of range and structure; and Bloch added his own piano introduction which is mirrored in the coda.

Bloch’s clearly stated priority was always to give expression to the whole gamut of human emotions; and it was to this end that the technical demands pervading his violin writing were dedicated. So much of the language of the early to mid-twentieth century may be found in this repertoire: muted passages, pizzicato, sul ponticello, col legno, tremolando, harmonics, double-stopping, often in combination. And in all of this the piano is an equal partner, producing a vast palette of colours across the entire keyboard: for example, arpeggio figurations, ostinatos, unusual textures created by the use of familiar triads in unexpected superimpositions. The overall style may be described as motivic (though there are occasional extended melodies), rhapsodic, intense, constantly alternating – either gradually or abruptly – between extremes of passion and serenity. And there is, throughout, an uncompromising honesty and integrity that speaks directly to the heart.

Alexander Knapp © 2005

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