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Ernest BLOCH (1880–1959)
Schelomo - Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra (1915-16) [22:15]
Violin Concerto in A minor (1937) [35:21]
Suite Hébraïque for violin and orchestra (1951) [11:10]
André Navarra (cello)
Hyman Bress (violin)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jindrřich Rohan
rec. 7-9 Feb 1964, House of Artists, Prague; 25-29 Apr 1966, Supraphon Domovina Studio, Prague,
SUPRAPHON SU3169-2 [69:02]

This disc’s musicianly qualities and recording technology - read microphone placement - speaks, for me, of a golden age; it’s well past time for an article on Czech audio engineering. The listener is placed right up close to the soloist and orchestra. Every dynamic gradation, slide and caesura registers with rough-hewn vivacity. It’s such that you could almost certainly follow the score in study mode without getting lost. The downside is that the sound of the orchestras can seem almost forbidding.

This composer-driven disc merits its continued presence in the catalogue. It has been in CD circulation for two decades and before that was issued by Supraphon as part of their Crystal Collection (11 0674-2 011) in 1992. Navarra (1911-1982) is well enough known and has his 6-CD Edition on the Fondamenta label courtesy of the Association Andre Navarra. There’s also a five-disc box on Supraphon (complete Prague recordings 1953-66) and a 10-disc set on Hänssler Profil. Hyman Bress (1931-1995) is pretty much unknown by comparison. Unheard by me, there’s an LP of the Tchaikovsky concerto with Boult conducting. Folkways recorded Bress in works for violin and piano by Stravinsky and Bloch. He studied at the Curtis with that elite teacher, Galamian. He spent his last days in Canada. Bress is no also-ran. He combines the precise attack of an épée and at the other end of the scale the stopping power of a sabre. Notable in the Bloch Concerto is his display of silky continuity in the slow movement.

As to the conductors, Ančerl needs no special pleading; he rated his own volume in the Great Conductors of the 20th Century series. After his many projects for Supraphon he ended his days in Canada from which we really should have a CD transfer of his Healey Willan Second Symphony (a work of Elgarian magniloquence) with the Toronto orchestra, once to be had on CBC Radio Canada vinyl (SM133). Jindřich Rohan (1919-1978) was, on this showing, a force to be reckoned with. Despite this his name has slipped out of the picture. He recorded for Supraphon. He was at least on one other occasion a ‘running mate’ for Bress in that he conducted the Prague orchestra in their other major Supraphon project (SUA ST 50878), coupling the concertos by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. That I would like to hear.  

While I have dwelt on the musician personalities, this intelligently well-packed disc is composer-led rather than there being any suspicion of it being an artist ‘vehicle’. This Schelomo - one of the most often recorded of Bloch’s works - is harshly virile and gripping. Navarra is well to the fore and plays with an untiring singing faculty. The music is allowed to smoke and fume, even down to the lugubrious meditation. Memorably, the reedy little fanfares piped by the oboe at 9:00 and at the close are especially memorable. Jonathan Woolf has mentioned this disc in laudatory terms. He groups Szigeti (Naxos, Music and Arts), Totenberg (Vanguard) and Bress into a kindred lineage. In Bress and Rohan’s hands have the captious, even vituperative, fanfares in the first movement of the Concerto ever sounded so immediate yet rounded? This contrasts with a hyper-active solo line and a smokily dreaming almost stasis; made me think of The Lark Ascending. The second movement’s Ravel-like gentleness and contemplative pace evoke a dream. The finale’s turbulence finally gives way to a contented sea surface and at 7:34 an ecstatic rounded and curvetting flight. The three miniatures that comprise the Suite Hébraïque are heard in sound that is anything but miniature. The music ranges through an easy sweetness with rumblings from the Violin Concerto to a stalking march with the violin’s song subtly in the weave. The finale assumes the character of an English folk-song, perhaps in the manner of Moeran or Warlock.   It’s worth mentioning that Bloch was a distinguished teacher during his many years in the USA with a pupil cadre that included Antheil, Sessions and Virgil Thomson.

The booklet notes are by Milos Navratil. They are in English, German, French and Czech. They may be shortish but they are also helpful in setting the scene.

Rob Barnett



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