BLOCH: Israel Symphony; Suite for Viola and Orchestra – Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./ Atlas Camerata/Delia Atlas/ Yuri Gandelsman, viola – Naxos 573283, 37:00 (8/12/14) *****:
Bloch was born in Geneva in 1880 to Jewish parents. He began playing the violin at age nine, and this disc features his Israel Symphony written in 1916. Bloch came to America in 1941, settling near Portland, Oregon. The symphony is meant to evoke ancient Israel, and is part of Bloch’s religiously-based works that also includes the better-known Schelomo.
The work has three movements and ends with a vocal movement. Requiring five soloists, it probably explains why this work is so seldom heard. The symphony contains references to some chants and some Swiss folk songs. It’s a powerful work, well-played by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The second work on the disc is Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra, a four- movement work that is often paired with the Israel Symphony. The suite has a long first and last movement, and the piece is beautifully orchestrated and a memorable listen. On the disc, this work is performed by the Atlas Camerata Orchestra. The intense violin solo is ably performed by Yuri Gandelsman.
The recording from Naxos is excellent. There is a solid soundstage, with soloists well highlighted without being unrealistic. The viola sounds wonderful. It’s a 1748 Paolo Testore instrument, and is a pleasure to hear. Although each piece was recorded at a different place, the recording technique applied is similar and I can’t readily hear a difference in the venues. In each case we get a reasonable rendering of a live performance, with the geometry of the orchestra sounding natural and not distorted by microphone placement asks so often the case.
If you like Bloch, this CD is worth having, both in terms of performance and recording. Naxos has done a fine job producing this disc, and it is worthy of your attention. Bloch’s symphonies are woefully thin on CD, I see three other recordings in the catalog, including a 1999 CD with the Utah Symphony. This disc is sonically superior.
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