Jack Liebeck & Bengt Forsberg – Ernest Bloch Jubilee Concert

Sonata in G for Violin and Piano
Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano
Baal Shem – Three Pictures of Chassidic Life
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano

Jack Liebeck (violin) & Bengt Forsberg (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 15 July, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Exactly 50 years to the day after Ernest Bloch’s death in Portland, Oregon, this excellently planned programme showcased two of his finest works. Baal Shem (which also exists in an orchestral version) certainly deserves its tenuous place in the repertory but – like Bartók’s First Violin Sonata – Bloch’s Violin Sonata No.1 is an altogether tougher but worthwhile nut requiring special pleading, something it certainly received on this occasion. The comparison with Bartók’s work, written at about the same time, is particularly appropriate since the Hungarian composer clearly felt a special affinity for Bloch’s work and performed it with some regularity during the 1920s.

Jack Liebeck. Photograph: Tim Meara Having recently signed an exclusive contract with Sony Classical, Jack Liebeck has increasingly been touted as an emerging superstar. Any such marketing hype is out of place. Now nearly 30, Liebeck is a fine and thoughtful musician whose career has been patiently built on firm foundations and whose repertoire is far broader than most wunderkinds. As well as leader of the Fibonacci Sequence ensemble, he is Artistic Director of the Oxford May Music Festival.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata dates from 1917 and was more or less his last work. Evanescent, strangely incorporeal like a feather blowing in the wind, its frequent switches of mood are difficult to catch; this is music difficult to bring off. With Liebeck and Bengt Forsberg the notes were certainly in place but there was a slightly too-literal quality and a lack of abandon at the finale’s close where the pauses – essentially false endings – misfired, possibly because insufficient momentum had been worked up beforehand.

Memorable in every respect was the performance of Bloch’s large-scale but relatively unknown First Violin Sonata. This dates from 1920 when Bloch was in the process of relocating from New York to Cleveland. Describing his motivation in writing this most tormented of pieces, Bloch referred to “the terrible war and the terrible peace that followed”.

It opens like a coiled spring molto agitato, this duo fully releasing its tensions, Liebeck notably rich-toned in the tranquillo second subject. The second movement, Molto quieto, was if anything even more remarkable, its opening a hypnotic, even mystical response to the preceding music … but not for long; an extraordinary pizzicato passage leads to an all-enveloping, no-holds-barred climaxes, here given full value. The finale reverts to Bloch at his most rebarbative with motoric rhythms; here a slightly faster tempo might have served the music better. With that minor reservation, this was a remarkably convincing and welcome performance of a hugely demanding work.

Baal Shem is a three-movement suite of which the central ‘Nigun’ (Improvisation) is probably the best known of Bloch’s compositions and is often performed separately. The opening movement ‘Vidui’ refers to the Jewish confessional prayer recited on one’s deathbed and the finale, ‘Simchat Torah’ (Rejoicing in the Law), evokes the thanksgiving celebration at the end of Sukkot, the week-long Jewish holiday period. Liebeck brought an ecstatic, impassioned quality to ‘Nigun’ and ‘Simchat Torah’ – which includes a Jewish wedding dance that was also used by Shostakovich in his First Violin Concerto – was suitably exultant.

César Franck’s Violin Sonata received a wonderfully confident full-blooded performance whose highpoint was the resonant ‘Recitativo-fantasia’ third movement, which sounded wholly idiomatic. Elsewhere, despite much fine playing, there was a tendency to give too much too soon so that when the floodgates finally opened at the finale’s apotheosis too little remained in reserve.

Appropriately this celebration of Bloch culminated with a sensitive encore, Joseph Achron’s haunting Hebrew Melody.

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