Ernest Bloch was always most comfortable when writing for stringed instruments, and none more so than the violin. His concerto of 1938 was written for Yehudi Menuhin, by which time the composer was back in Europe, but these violin and piano works all date from the 1920s, when the composer was moving around America.
Whatever influences he may have picked up across the Atlantic, it’s the spectre of the First World War that dominates the anguished tones of the first sonata. The impassioned, full blooded opening hurls out a hook that jumps from one instrument to the other, asserting itself over and over again. The violin alternated between Hagai Shaham‘s singing high tone and an aggressive lower register where the theme is usually heard. In contrast, the mysterious and introverted second theme is curiously detached, with Bloch’s modal harmonies creating a tonal ambiguity.
After the exhausted first movement comes a mournful second, incorporating a passage of undulating violin figuration similar to that used by Prokofiev in his later sonatas. The third movement tries to convey a more positive outlook, striking a clear tonality for the first time, but still ends up as a barbed statement when it collapses into a tired coda.
It’s a credit to Shaham and accompanist Arnon Erez that this work carries such a punch. Bloch’s knowledge of the violin – he was taught by a master in Ysaye – means that the passagework is frequently taxing, but with this completely under his fingers Shaham has no worry.
A different challenge arrives in the shape of the second sonata. Aware of the challenges he had thrown down to audiences with the first piece, Bloch opted for a more serene, spiritual work, subtitling it as a ‘Poeme Mystique’. Broad, lengthy melodic lines test Shaham’s range of expressive tone and again he is not found wanting, even in the passages where the rich harmonies fill the texture. As in many works Bloch employs Jewish melodies, in this case from his own Jewish Cycle.
Completing the disc are three other violin and piano works, the brief yet charming Melodie, the lush Nuit Exotique and Abodah, which once again quotes from traditional Jewish sources. Bloch dedicated this to Menuhin, whom he had now met in San Francisco.
A generous program is enhanced by comprehensive booklet notes, which will be invaluable to anyone perceiving Bloch as stylistically unimportant in the perspective of 20th century music. In fact it’s clear he was a forward thinking composer, projecting his music with a refreshing directness and honesty. With superbly characterized performances like these, this disc fills a gap in the repertory.