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CD Review

Ernest Bloch / Benjamin Lees2>

Violin Concertos

Elmar Oliveira, violin
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
Artek AR-0042-2 2008 65:36
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Summary for the Busy Executive: No reservations – terrific performances of two magnificent concerti.

After decades of neglect, two recordings of Bloch's violin concerto have appeared practically simultaneously: Zina Schiff's account on Naxos and this one by Elmar Oliveira on Artek. I've made no secret of my love for Bloch, especially for this concerto, but in the past I've lamented that no recording, rare as it may have been, came close to unlocking even half the power of that score – not even Szigeti and Munch or Menuhin and Kletzki. Heretofore I liked best Hyman Bress, Jindrich Rohan, and the Prague Symphony on Supraphon, but it sprawled quite a bit. Zina Schiff and José Serebrier's reading cohered more, but Schiff's tone didn't meet the heroic demands Bloch places upon the soloist. The violin was Bloch's own instrument, and he played well enough to become a pupil of Ysaÿe, although the Belgian urged him to put aside his instrument for composition. Bloch certainly knew what constitutes an effective, idiomatic violin part.

This doesn't deny the considerable challenges for the soloist. A violinist needs merely fingers of steel, a big tone, muscular lyricism, a preternatural sensitivity to ensemble, and lots of brains. You could say mostly the same for the conductor and the orchestra. In that way (although in that way alone), it reminds me of the Brahms and the Sibelius. Incidentally, one shouldn't regard this as a "Jewish" work. The composer himself painstakingly pointed this out, specifically citing the first theme of the first movement as an American Indian tune. Bloch's language, structurally pentatonic here, may belong to the folk music of both Native Americans and European Jews, but the real connection is that the same person wrote both the concerto and Schelomo, rather than a shared inspiration or impulse to express the Jewish "soul."

The first movement especially demands of the soloist all the above virtues, plus sheer stamina. It runs twenty minutes, and the soloist seems to play just about every bar. The cadenza alone lasts at least four minutes. Overall, the movement begins with a fanfare and moves into a majestic cortège, punctuated by "barbaric" cries and alarums. The fanfare, by the way, accounts for more than half the discourse in the movement, as Bloch varies this basic idea with apparently endless invention. Themes come from a bag of notey bits, which Bloch combines and recombines for new directions in the narrative. The procession builds over a long, mighty span before settling into a still, meditative section. It turns out that the violin and orchestra merely catch their breath here. The music ramps up again before collapsing into yet another appearance of the quieter material, but this is no mere repetition. The emotional meaning becomes darker, more pained, and leads to the violin solo reflecting on most of the ideas presented so far. It says a lot for Bloch's technique that the cadenza doesn't simply go by, but is a cohesive advance of the musical and emotional argument. It says a lot for Oliveira that he presents that cadenza with greater strength and conviction than any other player I've heard. Bloch raises the listener's expectation that the movement end quietly, but in the last less-than-a-minute the soloist whips up the orchestra for one final flare.

César Franck's cyclical principles of construction, of all things, influenced Bloch's thinking over larger spans. This means that the same little bits tend to show up from movement to movement. However, Bloch employs them far more subtly than Franck and usually where you least expect them. Furthermore, Bloch habitually varies the bits rhythmically to such an extent that in effect they become genuinely new. The purely orchestral opening to the slow second movement, for example, takes a dotted-rhythm theme from the violin in the first movement and irons it out. The emotional temperature of the movement runs cooler than the first. It presents itself like a simple song, with a silvery, moonlight beauty to it, but in that it deceives the listener. Bloch has written about seven minutes based on only two extremely short ideas and never loses one's interest. Also, before this particular recording, I never realized how contrapuntal this movement is. It seems like melody plus accompaniment, but extremely incisive subsidiary lines comment almost subliminally upon the surface, and the two motives, plus variants, often sound simultaneously.

The orchestra hurls out another blaze of brass (the opening to the second movement, disguised), heralding the finale, and the violin, more meditatively, launches into the fanfare from the first movement. This leads seamlessly to a radiant pastoral section, like a summer day in the country, as joyous as the finale to Beethoven's violin concerto. However, earlier, more troubling ideas begin to move into the discourse. Regret and sadness build to anxiety and crisis. The music attempts to return to the innocence of the pastoral and fails. However, the fanfare returns and, with it, heroism. The violin and orchestra lead out on that note to the end.

The concerto form has always drawn American Modernist Benjamin Lees. He's written for the usual suspects as well as chamber concerti, a concerto for orchestra, concerti for orchestral section leaders, and concerti for more than one soloist. He doesn't quite reach the concerto output of Martinů (other than Milhaud, I can't think of anyone who does), but the concerto seems somehow just as central to his work nevertheless. One can fairly call Lees a dramatic composer in the sense that contrasting ideas clash throughout his music in very interesting ways, and this fits the concerto like a Saville-Row suit.

I first heard Lees's 1959 violin concerto from a Seventies LP released by Vox/Turnabout in their "Composer in America" series. Ruggiero Ricci soloed with the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Szeryng premièred the work in 1963. I loved it when I first heard it, but I never expected another recording in my lifetime. On this new CD, I must say that the concerto strikes me as a completely different and, to my mind, even better piece. A new work of substance doesn't often reveal its secrets or even its most important secrets right away. You need performers coming at it from many standpoints before the piece comes into focus. Indeed, even something as well-established as the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra still draws a wide range of views. Perhaps you can measure the life of a work in that range. The Lees concerto is no longer one thing. This second recording establishes the necessary range, so sometimes things work out, despite a fifty-year wait. Just don't make the mistake of holding your breath.

The Lees concerto is just as tightly-written as the Bloch, but it is leaner, slightly less certain in its psychic stance, and yet more direct in expression. Lees also gives the soloist an heroic part, although the heroism leans more to Humphrey Bogart than to Errol Flynn. A bit of the nineteenth century clings to Bloch, as it does to Mahler, while Lees, although fundamentally Romantic in his creative impulse (like almost every American composer), belongs wholly and firmly to the Modern era, and we, after all, prefer more grit on our heroes.

Lees leans more to the Stravinskian side of things in his musical language, without sounding particularly like Stravinsky. His concerto sings cleanly and dances with muscle. It reaches a level of intensity that may for some bring the Shostakovich violin concerti to mind, although his music doesn't sound much like Shostakovich's, either. He also gives the impression of having said exactly what he wanted to, without irony or euphemism, and this, believe it or not, confuses some listeners. In many violin concerti (certainly in the Schoenberg and the Sibelius, for example), one finds an element of looking back, a kind of visionary nostalgia that listeners have come to expect. When it's not there, they miss it. It sometimes comes down to mere mood, sometimes to quotation from previous works, sometimes to the recall of themes. It usually appears at rhetorical points of rest. Lees's concerto emphasizes the here and now and continually looks forward. It relaxes at certain points, as a work of any length must, but not with a backward glance. The musical argument always moves along, without backtracking. Even when one metaphorically catches one's breath, some goal is always in sight, and while Lees does re-use certain thematic shapes, the effect is rather that of a golden thread running throughout the concerto fabric, rather than an attraction to the past.

The first movement, tests the soloist not only physically, but also musically. Making sense and getting through are the soloist's primary jobs. Like much of Lees, the music is stark, intense, even a bit angry. Lees describes it as another slow movement, but to me it's more a walking tempo. It begins with a low dark line in the strings, which a solo flute extends – essentially, we're staking out low and high. After this incredibly brief introduction, the solo violin enters somewhere in the middle, elaborating on the strings. In stark, two-part counterpoint the strings once again take up their idea, and the soloist comments upon it. A more rhythmic variant of the opening comes in for contrast, and Lees combines this with the low-string idea in its original form and orchestration, as the violin elaborates. A more lyrical motive, in triple time, enters, with overtones of a waltz. These gestures constitute the meat of the movement. Without a score, I can't be sure, but I certainly don't hear "sonata movement." Instead, the conflict of these various ideas suggests new places to go, new twists. This leads to a cadenza in which the solo violin rearranges the thematic components in new ways once more. The orchestra re-enters with a shortened recap of the opening, and the movement ends. Nevertheless, all this technical stuff most listeners will probably find beside the point once they hear the movement. If you're drawn to the Shostakovich violin concerti or to the Prokofieff second, this movement has much the same brooding, lowering quality. However, the soloist doesn't Struggle Against Fate. In a sense, Lees paints "inner weather," as opposed to an agent acting in the world. The movement keeps saying to me, "This is the way things are."

The slow movement took a bit of time to drop into place for me, mainly because its form, like that of the first, is so obviously the result of process rather than classical precedent. Lee writes that his theory of symphonic success comes down to the quality of the slow movement, a notion he got from his teacher George Antheil. In general, Lees's slow movements are wonderful, something not all that easy to bring off. Left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate to the fast and rhythmic. I'm shallow. Sue me. I can easily fall asleep during a slow movement, and indeed I have, to some very well-known, highly-regarded pieces. This movement isn't a song per se, although it sings in its own way. It begins with what I like to call "Mahlerian thirds" in two solo flutes, outlining a corkscrew idea. The building method follows closely the pattern established in the first movement: the juxtaposition and elaboration of a few ideas drives the musical argument. The main gestures of this movement, in addition to the corkscrew, are a wide leap up with the fallback of a semitone (which may relate to the opening idea of the first movement) and a rhythmic motive that emphasizes stamping repeated notes. By the way, pay close attention to the upward theme. It has consequences in the third movement. Indeed, at one point, Lees cuts the idea short to simply a falling semitone, which at one point comes out to a series of "amen" cadences. Again, the mood is grim, leavened by momentary bits of brightness. Elements of scherzo grotesquerie also break out at times. Lees has been called surrealist, if that word can be applied at all to something so highly logical as his music. Here, it comes down to mood and the volatility of mood changes. At any rate, unlike classical slow movements, with the Lees you don't wind up where you began. Rather, you seem to emerge from a dark, twisty tunnel.

The finale is quick and quirky, with the character, though not the form, of a rondo. The ideas of the finale definitely share a family look with those of the previous movements. In the words of Elgar, they all come from the same oven, and thus the finale seems to grow out of what has come before. The violin flies both unpredictably and powerfully over its material. However, within the movement lurks a surprise. The downward semitone gets a lot of stress. The violin part becomes increasingly virtuosic, and about a minute before the end, the orchestra declaims Mozart's "Jupiter" motive (harmonized by Lees, however) several times, as the violin throws off chains of pyrotechnical flash. You recognize this not only as the arrival point of the movement, but of the entire concerto. The downward semitones have been molded and shaped to this moment, and the motive has appeared in subsidiary parts or disguised in all three movements – as Henry James said, "the figure in the carpet." For instance, the "Mahler thirds" opening of the slow movement turns out to be simply a slight chromatic variant. This is a concerto of musical revelation, akin to the appearance of the chorale in the Berg concerto.

Oliveira is simply magnificent in the Bloch and quite fine in the Lees. The difference may just come down to something as mundane as familiarity. After all, as neglected as the Bloch concerto has been, it's practically repertory compared to the Lees. One can trace a tradition going back to Szigeti and Munch. The Lees, on the other hand, has received only the one other recording. Oliveira not only has the strong tone needed for both these works, but he so obviously "gets" them both. Every movement has a goal, and every phrase seems to point to it. These are magisterial readings. The ensemble clarity conductor Williams achieves with his Ukrainians impresses just as much, as does the sensitive interplay between orchestra and soloist. Lees's orchestration is less loaded than Bloch's, but Williams especially stirs me in how he uses percussion to bring crispness to Bloch's rich sounds (the snare drum in the first movement, for example). Everybody seems on the same interpretive page and plays with a focused intent. Right now, this CD stands as the finest stereo account of both the Bloch and the Lees, and it will probably remain so for a while. I also commend the engineering. You hear everything, in perfect balance. Congratulations to Artek.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz