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Monday, February 27, 2017

Ernest Bloch - Concerto Symphonique; Concerto Grosso No. 1; Scherzo Fantastique (Jenny Lin; Jiří Stárek)


Composer: Ernest Bloch
  1. Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra: I. Pesante
  2. Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra: II. Allegro vivace
  3. Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra: III. Allegro deciso
  4. Concerto Grosso No. 1 for string orchestra with piano obbligato: I. Prelude. Allegro energico e pesante
  5. Concerto Grosso No. 1 for string orchestra with piano obbligato: II. Dirge. Andante moderato
  6. Concerto Grosso No. 1 for string orchestra with piano obbligato: III. Pastorale and Rustic Dances
  7. Concerto Grosso No. 1 for string orchestra with piano obbligato: IV. Fugue
  8. Scherzo Fantastique for piano and orchestra

Jenny Lin, piano
SWR Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern
Jiří Stárek, conductor

Date: 2006
Label: Hänssler Classic



My first encounter with Ernest Bloch’s Concerto grosso No. 1 came via Howard Hanson’s performance of the piece on a Mercury LP. Originally recorded in 1959, it is now available on CD. I was immediately taken with the rhythmic drive and acerbic harmonies of the first movement and the Bach-like fugue that concludes the work. A teacher of mine at the time suggested that if I liked the Bloch I ought to check out Bohuslav Martinu’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani. I did, and it was true; the two pieces did share a not dissimilar style, though the Martinu, written more than 13 years later in 1938, was even more driven in its propulsive motor-rhythms and biting bitonality. 

This got me to thinking that our musical preferences might be formed largely by chance encounters made or missed as we explore different paths on the way to building our libraries. Piece A leads one listener to Piece B, while Piece A leads another listener to Piece C, completely missing Piece B. It’s a narrative told by Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. 

Bloch’s Concerto grosso No. 1 was, if I am not mistaken, the first work he wrote upon becoming an American citizen in 1924. He was at the time on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the piece was written specifically for the school’s student orchestra. In intent, if not in style, it falls into the same category of works as Britten’s 1934 Simple Symphony , written for a student string ensemble. Bloch’s concerto, however, is in a neo-Classical vein, whereas Britten’s symphony veers more towards the neo-Baroque. Similarities and differences apart, Bloch’s works fall mainly into two or possibly three stylistic typologies that he pursued throughout his life, not so much in distinct sequential periods, but in more or less conjoined circularities. In other words, we find scores in groupings throughout Bloch’s creative career that explore his Jewish roots, another clutch of compositions in neo-Classical mode, and yet another cluster of works in a quasi-Impressionist or even late-Romantic style, only to return to the Jewish theme and once again around the circle. As already stated, the Concerto grosso No. 1 best fits into the neo-Classical category. 

CD note author Eckhardt von den Hoogen puts all of this succinctly when, in speaking of the Concerto symphonique for piano and orchestra, he says, “the expression of Bloch’s Jewish period (italics are mine) is in reality a phase that lasted till the end of his life, with Jewish themes occurring constantly, even in works whose titles do not necessarily suggest a Jewish content.” The 1949 Concerto symphonique is a case in point; for though much later than the Schelomo rhapsody and Israel symphony of 1916, it shares much in common with them. The Middle Eastern exoticisms are unmistakable, and the cinematic sweep of its large and colorful orchestral canvas “comes across to the unprepared listener,” according to van den Hoogen, “rather like background music for a scene in The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur.” 

The latest written piece on the disc—1950— is the Scherzo fantasque for piano and orchestra. Bloch himself led the Chicago Symphony in its premiere performance. The word “fantastic” in connection with a musical composition, as in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique , often connotes elements of the grotesque, the nightmarish, and the macabre—the grinning and shrieking of hideous apparitions. Think Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain . Bloch could not possibly have written his Scherzo fantasque without knowing the latter, for passages leap out at you that are near quotations. It’s an extremely exciting and effective piece, though unlike the Mussorgsky, it doesn’t end with the good spirits dispelling the evil ones. Bloch’s piece ends as blackly as it began. 

These are not first recordings of any of these works—the aforementioned Concerto grosso with Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony is a classic; and an excellent recording of both the Concerto symphonique and the Scherzo fantasque is available on a Chandos disc with pianist Halida Dinvoa—but for all around programming, outstanding playing by Jenny Lin, and “fantastic” (as in really fantabulous) recorded sound this release is a winner. Very strongly recommended. 

-- Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

More reviews:
BBC Music Magazine  PERFORMANCE: **** / SOUND: ****


Ernest Bloch (July 24, 1880 – July 15, 1959) was a Swiss-born American composer.  Bloch's musical style does not fit easily into any of the usual categories; he studied variously with Jaques-Dalcroze, Iwan Knorr and Ludwig Thuille, as well as corresponding with Mahler and meeting Debussy. Many of his works - as can be seen from their Hebrew-inspired titles - also draw heavily on his Jewish heritage. He held several teaching appointments in the U.S., with George Antheil, Frederick Jacobi, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, and Roger Sessions among his pupils.


Jenny Lin (born 1973) is a Taiwanese-born American pianist. She studied music at Vienna's Hochschule für Musik with Noel Flores and later on at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore with Julian Martin. She also studied with Richard Goode, Dmitri Bashkirov, and Andreas Staier. Lin is one of those adventurous pianists unafraid to tackle contemporary repertory or to explore the works of lesser-known composers of generations past. She has been serving on the faculty at the 92nd Street Y, and has made recordings for Hänssler Classics, BIS, and Koch International.


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