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Bloch himself had conducted two movements for a Festival of Swiss and German new music in Basle in 1903, coolly received by the organisers yet admired by critics such as Robert Godet, who became a friend. Yet when Godet's credentials as a supporter of Houston Stewart Chamberlain's racialist theories became apparent, Bloch cut off friendly relations, by now more fully engaged in his search for a universalistic, yet still keenly Jewish, musical identity. Traces of Bloch's 'Jewish' style as well as his French, German and American (Hollywood) styles emerge in this early work, which shows an original absorption of influences without yet having achieved quite an individualised, mature voice. We hear traces of Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner and Mahler; there are some wonderful high textural doublings and pedal points, canonic interplay and galvanic brass climaxes. Thus it is a compelling if unusual, patchwork piece, which essays all sorts of effects, infused with passion, vigour, orchestral acrobatics. The harmony is chromatic, featuring Brucknerian enriched dominants with full brass at climaxes. Indeed in general the fortissimo level appeared too pervasive; one savoured the lighter, lyrical moments, some of which had a Mahlerian transparency, evocative at times, like Mahler, of the countryside. At times Bloch's youthful inexperience shows through: for example, the textures seem too simplistic, the canons are only two part and often do not lead anywhere; climaxes sometimes hang onto dissonant non resolution for too long and eventually dissolve into the texture; there are quirky modulations around the chromatic cycle, though these sometimes turn out to be strokes of genius, chords which lead into unexpected regions, especially in the coda to the finale.
The four movement design is straightforward, sonata form, slow aria form, scherzo and trio and fugal finale, inspired perhaps by Bruckner if not earlier Romantic models. The slow introduction is magical, both harmonically and with the solo string motives and phrases that emerge from the main texture. The powerful first subject has an urgent, volatile nature contrasted by a conventionally more relaxed second subject, yet the unconventional elements are the chromatic transitions, which are excitingly Wagnerian, fuelled by chromatic horn gestures and leading to galvanic dissonant climaxes. After the first main climax the sudden plunge to a pianissimo rumble conjures up a post-Tristan soundscape, tremolandos in the bass with a short instrumental theme soaring above. Though the programmatic sketch of the movement is 'Doubts, Struggles, Hopes (The Tragedy of Life)', Bloch's rays of sunlight here are short-lived: a dotted motif in an ominous variant of the main theme transforms all too briefly into a luminous major theme for violin solo only to dissolve again into the ominous angst. Tonal resolution is effectively held back until the final climax, when after a sustained dissonance the arrival is accompanied by a fading timpani beat which heralds a sinewy chromatic coda. Even the final chord is enveloped in sinewy chromaticism, akin to Mahler.
Copyright © 1 July 2007
Malcolm Miller, London UK