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CD of the Week – Ernest Bloch’s Hebrew Rhapsody

Bloch/Bruch: Schelomo, &c.
Hyperion

Ernest Bloch’s ‘Hebrew rhapsody’ for cello and orchestra, written in Geneva in 1916, has been performed with passion and conviction by many great cellists, none of whom has persuaded me that I ever wanted to hear the piece again. This new recording by Natalie Clein is the first to do so.

The BBC’s 1995 Young Musician of the Year, Clein is a thoughtful artist with a gift for lyrical understatement. Bloch was a cosmopolitan chameleon who made his mark, aged 30, with a 1910 Macbeth opera in Paris. During the First World War he immersed himself in Jewish self-discovery in neutral Switzerland. The next decade he spent in Italy before reinventing himself in a new world with the huge 1928 oratorio America. The real Ernest Bloch is ever elusive.

Clein’s approach is commendably uncluttered. In Schelomo’s many liturgical quotations, most notably in the melody that Bloch supposedly heard his father sing in Hebrew, she adopts a stiff upper lip of British reserve that allows the music to speak for itself and shields it from the hazards of kitsch. Her restraint, ably supported by conductor Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, pays off. Schelomo becomes a meditative cello concerto in Elgarian vein and less of an essay in exotic anthropology. No-one since Gregor Piatigorsky in 1957 has made such sense and beauty of the score.

In Bloch’s suites From Jewish Life and Voice in the Wilderness lyricism runs on a looser rein, stopping short of sentimentality. Max Bruch’s version of the Kol Nidrei recitation for cello and orchestra might have benefited from a bigger change of gear; but that is a tiny gripe. You cannot wish to hear a clearer, lovelier investigation of Bloch’s Jewish decade.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.