Sol Gabetta: Prayer = BLOCH: “From Jewish Life”; Nigun; Meditation hebraique; Schelomo; SHOSTAKOVICH: From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79; CASALS: El Cant dels Ocells – Sol Gabetta,cello/ Amsterdam Sinfonietta/ Candida Thompson (Bloch, Shostakovich)/ Orch. National de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin (Schelomo)/ Cello Ensemble Amsterdam Sinfonietta (Casals) – Sony Classical 88883762172, 59:30 (3/15/15) ****:

Recorded October 2012 – June 2014, the selections inscribed by Sol Gabetta (b. 1981) pay tribute to master Pablo Casals (1876-1973), perhaps intensified by their common Jewish theme. Gabetta states, “What interests me is the Jewish soul, the mysterious, ardent, turbulent soul that I see pulsating throughout the Bible. . .the suffering and grandeur of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Solomon.”  To this end, the music of Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) suits Gabetta perfectly, since the expansive 1916 tone-poem Schelomo completes his series of “Jewish cycle” pieces prior to his departure for the United States.

Gabetta opens with five examples from Bloch’s cycle “From Jewish Life,” as arranged by Christopher Palmer for cello, string orchestra, and harp. Typical of the Bloch rhetorical syntax, the music abounds with cantorial, arioso passagework in pentatonic scales, declamations, and anguished nostalgia. “Prayer,” the eponymous rubric for the entire disc, presents a “supplication” theme that naturally breaks into rounded cadences set in antiphons and homophonic blends with the chamber ensemble. We feel as if we witness a Bible scene starring Charlton Heston and Debra Paget. Naturally enough, “Supplication” extends the devout sensibility further, briefly, transparently. “Jewish Song” rather whines in sing-song above harp arpeggios, then descends into the instrument’s extreme registers, the bass tones sounding as if Paul Robeson were intoning a Kol Nidrei. For its seven-minutes duration, Nigun (from the Baal Shem suite, 1923) remains the most intense expression of vehement faith in string literature. The cello, even more than in violin arrangements, proffers a mesmeric effect through repetition and diverse assaults in contrasting registers.  The Meditation hebraique (1924), dedicated to Pablo Casals, rises up, de profundis, into an extended declamatory lyric of devotional power, augmented by a kind of four-note “fate” motif.

Dmitri Shostakovich conceived his From Jewish Folk Poetry in 1948 as a tacit “protest” against the Soviet condemnation of those “homeless cosmopolitan” composers – Jewish artists – at the time. Shostakovich chose eleven texts whose Yiddish themes and tropes resounded with “joy yet tragedy. . .laughter through tears.” Gabetta, working with Mikhail Bronner, made transcriptions of four of the pieces, which make their recording debut. “Lullaby” proceeds cautiously, in stepwise motion, with a plaintive tune that conveys a nervous optimism.  “A Warning” exploits slides in a cursory, ironic piece. “A Song of Misery” rather belies its tragic character with aggressive motions and harmonics that suggest humor can cure anything. Its middle section, momentarily, projects some sincerity. Finally, “The Young Girl’s Song” projects a degree of burgeoning hope in the midst of bleak landscape.

After a 1923 performance of the Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hebraique for violoncello and orchestra, a reviewer commented on “the burning sincerity, the richness of passion, the poignant spirituality and the profound penetration into the psychology of a race” that permeates this work.  Bloch consistently insisted that an “inner voice” spoke to him beyond any concerns he had with “authentic” Hebrew doxology or “oriental syntax.” The use of augmented seconds and fourths that add a decided “modality” to his sound – which I often characterize as “Roman” in its more “processional” moments – do affect our perception of his peculiar sound. Declamation and supplication enter the mix, but so do “outdoor” effects, sound that suggest the “indignant desert birds” from Yeats. The alternation of the “temple” of belief and the “temple” of Nature may signify what may be a distinction without a difference, given Bloch’s romantic pantheism of spirit. Gabetta and Slatkin deliver a luminous performance, beautifully nuanced in the winds and brass, and by Gabetta’s sheer range of cello palette. For those already enchanted by renditions by Feuermann, Piatagorsky, Gutman, Fournier, and Harnoy, another performance enters the heroic pantheon of monumental readings.

Finally, Gabetta celebrates Casals the composer, who took a Catalan folk song – Song of the Birds – and made it (after WW II) a constant encore. Casals noted that birds singing in the sky sing of “Peace, peace, peace,” and it is a melody Bach, Beethoven and all the greats would admire and love. The piece meant to honor those Catalans disinherited by war, but now it has become a plaint for anyone who feels like “a motherless child, far, far from home.”

—Gary Lemco