Hyperion Records

Baal Shem Suite

'Bloch & Ben-Haïm: Violin Music' (CDA67571)
Bloch & Ben-Haïm: Violin Music
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67571  Archive Service  
Movement 1: Vidui
Movement 2: Nigun
Movement 3: Simchas Torah

Baal Shem Suite
Bloch composed his suite Baal Shem (subtitled Three Pictures of Chassidic Life) in 1923. The work, dedicated to the memory of his mother Sophie who had died two years earlier, was inspired by two charismatic personalities. First of all, Israel ben Eliezer of Miedziboz, Poland (c1698–c1759), better known as Israel Baal Shem Tov (which translates from Hebrew as ‘Master of the Good Name’), the founder of modern Hassidism. This was a mystical movement that arose in Eastern Europe as a reaction against the perceived Rabbinical intellectualism of traditional Jewish Orthodoxy in the eighteenth century, and which placed great emphasis upon song, dance and ecstasy as channels for direct communication with God. Although Bloch came from a Western European Jewish background, he was deeply moved by a Hassidic Sabbath service that he had been invited to attend on New York’s Lower East Side in 1918. This was to have far-reaching effects on his direction as a composer. His second source of inspiration was the celebrated Swiss violinist André de Ribaupierre (1893–1955), who—during the gestation period of the suite—visited the Cleveland Institute of Music, which Bloch had founded in 1920 and which he directed until his move to the San Francisco Conservatoire in 1925. Ribaupierre gave the first public performance of the complete suite at a concert organized by the ‘Council of Jewish Women’ at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Cleveland on 6 February 1924. (An orchestral version was produced by the composer in 1939.)

The first movement, entitled Vidui (‘Contrition’), was originally named ‘Meditation’. It is a wordless prayer of repentance, concluding with a typical cadence in the traditional Eastern Ashkenazi Ahava Rabba mode, known more colloquially as Freigish.

The centrepiece of the suite is probably the best known among Bloch’s compositions for violin and piano and has retained its place in the standard repertoire as a self-standing solo work. The composer originally called this movement ‘Rhapsody’, but changed its name to Nigun (‘Improvisation’). This Hebrew and Yiddish word literally means ‘tune’, but in the Hassidic context it refers to a genre of songs, usually composed by tzaddikim (‘holy men’ or ‘saints’), the purpose of which is to transport both performer and listener to transcendental realms of spirituality. Niggunim (plural) could be either metrical or non-metrical, and they were usually set to non-semantic syllables (for example, ‘ya-ba-ba’ at a slow pace, or ‘biri-biri-bim-bom’ at a fast tempo). Although in this movement Bloch appears not to have quoted directly or intentionally from Jewish sources, the opening violin motif is identical to a phrase from Ashkenazi biblical cantillation; and one of the prominent melodies in the middle section bears a remarkable resemblance to Vos ost du mir opgeton (‘What have you done to me?’), a traditional Yiddish folksong (Frejlexs) quoted in Moshe Beregovsky’s Yevreiskiye Narodniye Pesny (‘Jewish Folk Songs’, Moscow, 1962).

The last movement, named after the festival of Simchas Torah (‘Rejoicing in the Law’), had earlier been given the Yiddish title Yontef (‘Holy Day’, from the Hebrew Yom Tov). This festival, which comes at the end of the High Holy Day season every Autumn, is the occasion on which the chanting of the last portion of Deuteronomy is immediately followed by that of the first portion of Genesis, so perpetuating the continuous cycle of Torah cantillation, amid joyful celebration and religious dancing. In the middle of this lively finale, Bloch has deliberately introduced the opening motifs of the popular Yiddish song Di Mezhinke Oisgegaybn (‘The youngest daughter married off’) by the Polish composer Mark Warshavsky (1848–1907), tossed back and forth between violin and piano.

All three movements reveal traits typical of Bloch’s music of the 1920s: extremes of melancholy and ecstasy; alternations—either gradual or abrupt—of acute intensity and deep serenity; an enormous spectrum of pitch and dynamics; powerful rhythms contrasting with passages of fluid recitative; fusions of tonality and modality.

from notes by Alexander Knapp © 2007

Track-specific metadata
Click track numbers opposite to select

   English   Français   Deutsch