Music is a funny thing. You would think that a piece written in 1923 for viola and piano wouldn't have to wait until 2005 for a decent arrangement for viola and orchestra. Yet such is the fate of Baal Shem. Not that it hasn't been recorded before, but the many different guises do make keeping up with the various recordings. I say "various", but it really hasn't gotten all that much attention, certainly not on the viola, and I would wager to guess certainly not this well. So we owe a lot of credit to dual violist and arranger Hong-Mei Xiao for her commitment to the cause. In any event, Bloch usually only gets credit for his "Jewish music", if one can call it that, and so rather than avoid that fact, Xiao and Naxos relish it will three suitably exotic works of varying far-east flavors.
Whatever your thoughts on the "Jewish" or "Eastern" nature of the music, you can't deny that it is well-crafted, drenched in color, and worthy of further exposure. Nor can you escape the fact that Xiao is a simply wonderful player, fully attuned to the various moods of the composer, and willing to be a little schmaltzy, if you will. The disc lasts just over an hour, and yet the music never tires the ear. Xiao is very well balanced against the Budapest forces, who clearly enjoy the rich tonal palette on display. Mariusz Smolij has very little he has to do – this is Xiao's show – but he does contribute positively. Still, this project is about a neglected composer's writing for a neglected instrument, and has to be considered a success on all counts. Awesome.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman