Hyperion Records

Voice in the Wilderness
1936; symphonic poem with cello obbligato; originally conceived for solo piano, then for cello and piano (1935) and finally for cello and orchestra

'Bloch: Schelomo & Voice in the Wilderness; Bruch: Kol Nidrei' (CDA67910)
Bloch: Schelomo & Voice in the Wilderness; Bruch: Kol Nidrei
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Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Poco lento
Movement 3: Moderato
Movement 4: Adagio piacevole
Movement 5: Poco agitato – Cadenza
Movement 6: Allegro gioioso

Voice in the Wilderness
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.

from notes by Alexander Knapp © 2012

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