Bloch Symphony in C sharp minor

Rosamunde – Overture, D797
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony in C sharp minor

Hagai Shaham (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Dalia Atlas

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 June, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The turn of the twentieth-century is rich in large-scale symphonies, with many of them ‘statements of intent’ by composers whose main achievements came later. One is the Symphony in C sharp minor by Geneva-born Ernest Bloch (1880-1959): composed during 1901-03, this was later championed by no less a figure than Ernest Ansermet, but has received few performances over the last few decades – making this revival by that doughty advocate of the neglected and unfamiliar, Dalia Atlas, an occasion worth attending.

Like several of his generation, Bloch took the symphony as a test of compositional prowess. Thus the present work is, in the first instance, a graduation exercise (as supervised by Max von Schillings and Ludwig Thuille) and one that offers only passing indications of where his idiom was headed. Yet it is hard not to enjoy this head-on embracing of the late-Romantic stylistic spectrum, expertly if indulgently scored for large orchestra, as represents the sum of a young composer’s experience.

The first movement commences with a substantial Lento introduction that unfolds in waves of sound, before a compressed but energetic Allegro climaxes not in the expected reprise but in the intensified return of the Lento’s apex, subsiding into a sombre recessional that brings the finest invention in the whole piece. The Andante alternates its heart-on-sleeve main theme with more self-effacing material, reaching a sonorous climax and ending in beatific calm. Next a Vivace whose rhythmic vitality recalls the scherzos of Bruckner, and a central section with nods towards Dukas and the Russian school. The finale sets off with an Allegro energico in a grimly determined contrapuntal manner, building a considerable momentum that carries over into what is less a reprise than an apotheosis, with the Andante’s main theme brought back and capped with bells and percussion before ending in glowing tranquillity.

Quite a piece to experience live, then, and one which spared no impact in the vivid but hardly ample acoustic of Cadogan Hall, as also through the abundant advocacy of Atlas. Indeed, it might have left a more cohesive impression had she not been so keen to draw out build-ups and underline climaxes so there was less in reserve the further the work progressed. The first movement extended over more than 20 minutes, while the Andante – with its ambivalent ‘molto moderato’ qualification – moved to a climax that was blowsy rather than heartfelt. The third movement came off best as interpretation and performance, the Royal Philharmonic responding with an alacrity to confirm it need not suffer comparison with other London orchestras. Conversely, the textural density of much of the finale was indifferently rendered and the apotheosis could not match in substance what it achieved in decibels.

This is not to decry anyone’s efforts in response to Bloch’s musical rite of passage. However, there are numerous ‘early symphonies’ from the period on a higher artistic level (Enescu’s Symphony in E minor combines Austro-German formal security and Latin expressive flair with far greater conviction), and it would be wrong to assume that Bloch’s was the pick of these. Yet if this account sparks off a revival of interest in the output of an unfairly overlooked figure, these efforts will have been well worthwhile.

The first half began with an account of Schubert’s Rosamunde overture that brought a ‘masonic’ gravitas to the introduction, for all that the main portion lacked humour and the coda was far too ponderous. It continued with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, in which Hagai Shaham’s tendency to snatch at phrasing made for an unsettled first movement, though the Andante did not lack songfulness nor the finale capricious high spirits. In short, an often enjoyable but hardly revelatory take on a familiar evergreen.

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