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.
from notes by Alexander Knapp © 2005