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Hyperion Records

CDA67910 - Bloch: Schelomo & Voice in the Wilderness; Bruch: Kol Nidrei
Photograph from the series Last Folio (Slovakia, 2005-2011) by Yuri Dojc
Recording details: September 2011
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: August 2012
Total duration: 61 minutes 29 seconds


'A breathtakingly beautiful dialogue between Natalie Clein and the BBC Scottish Symphony conducted by Ilan Volkov. Clein manages to explore the profound depths of [Bloch's Schelomo] and all its vocal expressivity without exaggeration or hyperbole and the orchestra's response feels minted in the moment rather than pre-planned. I'm not sure I've heard a more convincing modern account on disc. An immaculate recording' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'[Clein's performance of Schelomo] is thoughtful, subtle and satisfying, well supported by the passionate and spirited BBC SSO: … in Voice in the Wilderness,Clein encompasses all the work's varied character and demands while retaining an air of polish in her playing … the Bruch, too, receives a lovely performance, with Clein bringing out the different colour of each of the cello's strings and the orchestra effecting most beautifully the transition from sombre to heavenly' (Gramophone) » More

'The strongly emotive musical aura of Bloch's Schelomo seems ideally suited to Natalie Clein's impassioned style of cello playing … Clein delivers a powerfully committed performance, but also manages to avoid over-indulgence, negotiating the peaks and troughs of the music's volatile emotional language with a clear sense of direction. Undoubtedly, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra play a vital role in this process. Volkov brings a welcome transparency to Bloch's languorous instrumentation in the reflective secions, while the raging torrents of the orchestral tuttis have rarely sounded more highly charged' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'Natalie Clein is the cello protagonist in all four works, her range of tonal colour, her animation and her discreet soulfulness proving to be ideal qualities … the relationship between cello and orchestra is closely knit, Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC SSO with just the impetus and sensibility that this music requires' (The Daily Telegraph) » More

'Natalie Clein gives an unexaggerated performance pursuing the music's linearity and playing from the heart while conjuring some appropriate dark tone from her instrument … the music takes wing to both beguile and thrill. It's one of the most persuasive performances of this work [Schelomo] that I have ever heard … throughout, the recording is as vivid as the music … an outstanding release' (International Record Review) » More

'Clein and Volkov give a performance of Schelomo (1916) that is very moving, both in its profound sensuality and in the pervasive sense of transience that gnaws at its vision of worldly glory. They bring the same commitment to From Jewish Life (1924) and Voice in the Wilderness (1936) … the other knockout is Bruch's Kol Nidrei … beautifully done, it brings the disc to a reflective close. Highly recommended' (The Guardian) » More

'Natalie Clein's inspired collection of [Bloch's] three cello works on Jewish themes … is rare and welcome. Her impassioned, sensitive playing finds willing collaborators in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their former principal conductor' (The Sunday Times) » More

'Clein plunges deep into the world of Bloch's Schelomo as she effectively forms a red-hot line of communication with the listener in both its introspective, brooding moments and its soulful outbursts. The orchestra's string section produces a flawless body of sound and the balance is nicely judged' (The Strad)

'If one has enjoyed the music in those epic biblical movies of the last century, mostly starring Charlton Heston, chances are one will also respond to the works of the composer who influenced that genre. The Swiss-American Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) also wrote much secular music, but he will be best remembered for the works that reflect his Jewish heritage … completing this gorgeously performed anthology by young British cellist Natalie Clein is Max Bruch’s popular Kol Nidrei … essential listening' (Singapore Straits Times)

'Clein is a gifted interpreter of these nearly sacred musical themes, lovingly devoted to expressing the composers’ visions of what she calls 'the early 20th century yearning for a sense of identity and nostalgia for an imagined past, a past already being swept aside in favor of modernity and globalization.' And kudos to the talented Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov, whose sympathetic, restrained approach never treads on the tender solo cello passages—Clein and Volkov are a match made in heaven' (Strings, USA) » More

'You cannot wish to hear a clearer, lovelier investigation of Bloch’s Jewish decade' (Norman Lebrecht)

'[Clein] hat das nötige Einfühlungsvermögen, die starken, aufwühlenden, dunklen Klangfarben, die gelegentlichen Abstiege in seelische Abgründe mit der herzlichen Heiterkeit der volkstümlichen Klänge fein dosiert zu kombinieren. Hier gibt es keine schmachtende Melancholie und eben so wenig überschäumende Fröhlichkeit, dafür viel Sensibilität, viel Lyrik und schöne dynamische Kontraste' (Pizzicato, Luxembourg)

Bloch: Schelomo & Voice in the Wilderness; Bruch: Kol Nidrei
Prayer  [3'48]
Supplication  [2'16]
Jewish Song  [2'21]
Moderato  [2'45]
Poco lento  [4'01]
Moderato  [2'34]
Adagio piacevole  [4'37]
Allegro gioioso  [5'58]

A dazzling orchestral disc of music from the Jewish tradition of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is one of the most well-loved works in the cello repertoire. The descending opening phrase of the cello line is instantly recognizable: a universal, extraordinarily expressive utterance.

The main part of the disc comprises the works for cello and orchestra by Ernest Bloch, all part of his ‘Jewish cycle’. The most famous is Schelomo, a work inspired by passages from Ecclesiastes, where the cello, playing a deeply lyric and speaking line of prodigious technical difficulty, can be seen as ‘the incarnation of King Solomon’, as Bloch himself wrote. The other large-scale work for cello and orchestra, Voice in the Wilderness, is of a darker hue. Both works reveal a composer whose works should be firmly in the canon of twentieth-century symphonic writing.

The cellist here is Natalie Clein, a celebrated figure in British musical life since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1995 and now a formidable artist, possessed of great musical, technical and intellectual gifts.

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Each of the three ‘Jewish’ works by Ernest Bloch on this recording was written during a different biographical and musical phase of the composer’s life. Schelomo was completed in Geneva when he was at the height of his ‘Jewish Cycle’ (six epic works dating from 1912 to 1916, plus an unfinished opera, Jézabel). From Jewish Life came nearly a decade later, when he was focusing mainly upon writing chamber music and teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music (which he had founded in 1920). Voice in the Wilderness was composed just over a decade after that, when Bloch had temporarily returned to Europe (1930–38) and was again devoting himself exclusively to composition, while living in the mountains near Geneva.

Schelomo, subtitled ‘Rhapsodie hébraïque’, was written in the space of six weeks during January and February 1916. Bloch had, over a number of years, noted down thematic ideas for a vocal setting of selected verses from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the authorship of which is attributed to King Solomon (Hebrew: Schelomo) who reigned some 3000 years ago. Bloch had felt, however, that French, German or English were somehow unsuitable for the purpose, and that his grasp of Hebrew was inadequate. Coming into contact with the celebrated Russian cellist Alexandre Barjansky (1883–1961) and his wife Katja in Geneva towards the end of 1915 (some six years after their first meeting), Bloch was keen to share with them his ‘Jewish Cycle’ in general, and this new work in particular. Barjansky was greatly moved by what he heard. Realizing that the cello was the solution to the language problem, Bloch reformulated his sketches and passed them to Alexandre for scrutiny, while Katja at the same time made a small sculpture of King Solomon. In gratitude, Bloch dedicated Schelomo to the Barjanskys.

According to Bloch: ‘It is possible to imagine that the solo cello is the incarnation of King Solomon, and that the orchestra represents his internal world and his experience of life, though sometimes it is the orchestra that seems to reflect Solomon’s thoughts, while the solo instrument voices his words: “All is vanity.”’ Bloch places much emphasis on the king’s pessimism, despite ‘the royal pomp, the treasure, the wealth, the power, the women, all that a man might desire in this world’, and ‘the barbaric coloration of an Oriental world’ that surround him. The rhapsodic manner and glittering instrumentation may give the work an improvised air, but the underlying structure is a sturdy ‘ternary’ form (ABA), plus an introduction and coda.

The heroic melody that appears before and during the great orchestral climaxes occurring towards the end of the first and third sections of Schelomo is built upon motifs that bear a remarkable resemblance to the those of Tzur Yisroel (‘Rock of Israel’), a traditional chant that Bloch received from Reuben Rinder (1887–1966, Cantor at Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco) in the late 1920s while preparing his Avodath Hakodesh (‘Sacred Service’, 1930–33). Nevertheless, although numerous motifs throughout the six published works of the ‘Jewish Cycle’ are the composer’s subconscious transformations of biblical and cantorial chant, in only one instance did Bloch acknowledge that he had consciously taken a melody from a traditional source—a motif that his father ‘sang often, in Hebrew’, which appears for the first time at the beginning of the middle section of Schelomo. Bloch quoted the Hebrew text in a letter written to his mother four years after the work had been completed; and the melody is, in fact, an adaptation of a South German cantorial chant Uv’chen ten pachdecha, sung in Ashkenazi synagogues during High Holy Days.

‘Almost all my works, even the darkest ones, still end optimistically, or at least with some hope. This is the only one that concludes in complete negation. But the subject demanded it.’ The opening of Ecclesiastes confirms Bloch’s observation: ‘The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith Kohelet … And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven … and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.’

Despite the enormously demanding technical skills required of the soloist, this is not a concerto in the usual sense, and virtuosity is always the servant of that expressiveness in which the spiritual and sensual are fused.

Bloch composed From Jewish Life for cello and piano while on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the end of 1924, the year before his period of office as Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music came to an end. This set of three short pieces was dedicated to Hans Kindler (1892–1949), who had given the premiere of Schelomo at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1917. They explore the entire range of the solo instrument, musical structures are simple, and the use of Eastern European Ashkenazi modality creates a distinctive atmosphere. This recording features Christopher Palmer’s arrangement of Bloch’s original piano accompaniment for string orchestra and harp.

Prayer is in ternary form, and the two contrasting themes—one broad, the other fragmented—are each introduced by the cello and then repeated in the orchestra. In the final section the melody of the opening appears an octave higher, and is extended into a kind of free recitative. The accompaniment is essentially chordal, but there are several passages of rich two-part counterpoint. The key of F minor incorporates elements of the Magen Avot and S’licha modes of the synagogue; but it is the Ahava Rabba mode (known more colloquially as Freigish) that predominates in the coda. The cello solo ends with an especially poignant quartertone inflection.

Supplication is based upon a single theme in two parts, each of which recurs in various guises. Although the tonality is basically E minor, there is frequent modulation into related keys as the movement progresses. Elements of the Av Harachamim (Mi Shebeirach), Adonay Malach, and Ahava Rabba modes are combined here in rapid succession; and occasional syncopations suggest the rhythms of Hassidic dance. After a spirited climax, a long chromatic descent leads to a peaceful close.

Jewish Song is based upon a single melody in the Ahava Rabba mode on C. And again there are two parts, the first of which appears three times, and the second twice. Quartertones are plentiful; they produce a consistently doleful effect—particularly at the beginning, where the accompaniment comprises a slowly and solemnly repeated drone on a bare fifth. The movement arches to a climax, following which the theme fades away to nothing.

Bloch’s second large-scale work for cello and orchestra, Voice in the Wilderness, was written some two decades after the first, yet the intimate relationship between the two compositions is tangible. However, there are subtle differences, not only in overall architecture, but also in musical colour: Schelomo has been described as ‘red and gold’, Voice in the Wilderness as ‘bronze and brown’. The composer described this series of meditations as follows: ‘The various movements follow and link each other quite naturally. They are sometimes bound together by a barely perceptive thematic relationship or “reminiscence” but each has its own clearly defined character.’

The work was originally conceived for the piano—and indeed there is a separate version for piano solo, entitled Visions et Prophéties (comprising five of the six movements), which Bloch composed subsequently. But at this early stage the composer found himself constantly singing counterpoints while playing through the work. Despite suffering from poor health at the time, Bloch persevered with its construction and decided to add a cello part. Although it was still incomplete, Bloch, with Alexandre Barjansky who was visiting him in June 1935 in Paris (where he was living temporarily), played sections of it to Edmond Fleg (1874–1963)—librettist for Bloch’s operas Macbeth and Jézabel, and three Psalm settings. The great enthusiasm with which it was greeted encouraged Bloch to finish the cello-and-piano version by mid-August 1935, and the cello-and-orchestra version in late January 1936.

The process of finding a suitable title was arduous. Bloch had sent his friend Carl Engel a detailed analysis of his composition including indications as to the fluctuations of mood and atmosphere within each movement. Engel recalls that, during his subsequent visit to Bloch (now domiciled in Châtel, Haute-Savoie), he was deeply moved by the religious fervour and prophetic eloquence of Bloch’s performance on the piano; and the image of a ‘Voice in the Wilderness’ came spontaneously into his mind. Without hesitation, the composer wrote these words on the first page of his manuscript since, for him, this title perfectly evoked the journey of the soul through the whole spectrum of life’s experience.

Each of the six short movements has, in principle, the same bipartite structure: the first section, purely orchestral, is where the thematic material is presented; the second is where the solo cello enters, to orchestral accompaniment, and reflects melodically and rhythmically upon the mood and ethos of what has come just before. Any description of mood is bound to be subjective, especially since no specific ‘programme’ per se was intended by Bloch. But the following indicators might give a general impression of the emotional world depicted in each movement. The first expresses a grave and solemn sentiment, and the second reveals touches of bitterness; the third is more energetic and extrovert in character, whereas the fourth enters an idyllic dream-like dimension; the fifth, like the third, is more lively and forceful, and ends with a passionate and highly chromatic cadenza for solo cello; and the sixth, the longest of all, radiates joy, confidence, hope, and ‘the victory of the spirit’, concluding with a diatonic melody redolent of purification and peace. All the movements follow each other without a break—except for a brief pause between the last two. Unity is ensured by the use of ‘cyclic’ form, where themes presented in earlier movements recur, sometimes identically and sometimes in different guises, in later movements. This is a feature common to many of Bloch’s works.

Although there are no conscious quotations from the traditional melodic repertoire, the fingerprints of Bloch’s ‘Jewish’ style are ubiquitous: the use of traditional Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern modal resonances in general, and the frequent appearance of the augmented-second interval (often with semitones on either side) in particular; bare parallel fourths or fifths; dotted and ‘Scotch snap’ rhythms; frequent changes of tempo and metre; dynamic extremes; vivid contrasts of intensity and calm—sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt. Musical affinities with earlier compositions such as Trois Poèmes juifs (1913), the three Psalms, 137, 114, 22 (1912–14), Israel Symphony (1915–16), Schelomo (1916), String Quartet No 1 (1916), Baal Shem Suite (1923), and the ‘Sacred Service’ (1930–33)—as well as anticipations of future works such the Violin Concerto (1938) and Suite hébraïque (1951)—may be found here in abundance.

Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op 47, was written in Berlin in 1881 and dedicated to the cellist Robert Hausmann (1852–1909). It comprises two entirely separate musical entities. The first part is based upon a German synagogue chant, probably originating in the early sixteenth century, which has since become the universally accepted Ashkenazi setting of this eleventh-century Aramaic text. While living in Berlin, Bruch had learned one of the numerous variants of this melody from Cantor Abraham Lichtenstein (1806–1880), similar to the one that Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894) included in his two synagogue anthologies: Kol Rinnah U’t’fillah and Todah W’simrah. The second part is based upon the middle section of the song ‘O weep for those that wept by Babel’s stream’ (a paraphrase of Psalm 137) by the Anglo-Jewish composer Isaac Nathan (1790–1864), one of over thirty settings of texts that comprise Hebrew Melodies by Lord Byron (1788–1824), dating from 1815–16. The intense drama of the first part of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, in the minor key, is counterbalanced by the overarching lyricism of the second section in the major. The composer speculated that it was primarily the enormous popularity of this work that accounted for assumptions regarding his Jewish identity. However, his earliest known ancestor was Thomas Bruch (born 1560)—the first in a long line of Christian clerics. The passion of the ‘cellist as cantor’ performing a melody that has become iconic over the centuries evokes a mood of religious devotion in those who hear it as a profoundly liturgical expression. For those who are inspired by the beauty of secular art music, it creates an atmosphere of deep meditation and repose.

Alexander Knapp © 2012

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