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Malcolm Troup plays Bloch's Piano Sonata,
appreciated by JULIAN JACOBSON


A piano recital presented by the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe in association with the Jewish Music Institute's International Ernest Bloch Golden Jubilee Festival and given by the tireless Malcolm Troup, Chairman of the Beethoven Piano Society among his many other activities, afforded a most interesting opportunity to experience rare piano repertoire by the now somewhat neglected Swiss-Jewish (ultimately American nationalised) composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959).

For many listeners, and I confess I was one of them, Bloch is known mainly by a handful of colourful and passionate solo violin and cello pieces based in Jewish history and saturated in Jewish-oriental colouring, above all Baal-Shem and Schelomo -- blueprints for Hollywood's grandest Biblical-epic music but so much stronger and more authentic. What would a Bloch Piano Sonata sound like?

On the strength of Malcolm Troup's committed, tough and even somewhat ascetic performance [on Friday 7 November 2008 at St James' Church, Piccadilly, London UK], I would say that the work is a near-masterpiece that can take its place alongside such closely analogous works as Prokofiev's wartime sonatas (Nos 6, 7 and 8). Its present neglect can only be a matter of historical accident: one recalls, for instance, that ten years ago hardly anybody played Korngold. Bloch's Sonata dates from 1935 and inhabits a rugged, uncompromising terrain of wide open spaces, shifting slowly from one harmonic field to another (perhaps influenced by the years he had already spent in America). The passion of Schelomo is there but none of the pictorialism. The harmonic idiom derives ultimately from late Liszt; the piano writing is full and majestic, eliciting a wide variety of sonorities from St James's magnificent new Fazioli.

It was to Troup's enormous credit that the sound never became congested, as can easily happen in this church; judicious pedalling and always taut rhythms kept the textures clear so we could follow the musical argument and be swept up in Bloch's passionate rhetoric, maintained over a single span of some thirty minutes though in three clearly defined main sections. Perhaps at times he was over-assiduous in keeping the textures clear: occasionally I felt there could have been more variety of colour and narrative to help us enjoy even more the touches of Ravel, Debussy and the Stravinsky of The Firebird that seem to me part of Bloch's very diverse heritage. Indeed the Sonata was written for the eminent Italian pianist and Busoni pupil Guido Agosti, who had published a magnificent transcription of the closing numbers of The Firebird for solo piano not long before Bloch wrote his Sonata.

Following this tour de force, Malcolm Troup gave us more Bloch from the same year, his 'Visions and Prophecies'. As Troup told us and as the title indicates, this is one of the most obviously 'Jewish' of all Bloch's works, and occasionally I found it a little bit too fond of its own atmosphere. The second, poco lento, section seemed to me the most interesting and reminded me strongly in its harmonic language of the music that Frank Bridge -- another composer whose late and greatest music is severely neglected -- was writing around the same time. The lonely, fractured ending was particularly telling.

Beethoven: other times, other problems. The composer's legendary titanic struggles with his grander works hardly touch the set of cheerful Eccossaises with which Troup concluded his recital, offering the splendid opposition of Bloch at his toughest and most uncompromising, and Beethoven at his most sociable and good-humoured. What made the performance more interesting was that Troup was using the edition of Busoni. Digging out my old copy (bought as a student for three shillings -- that's fifteen pence to anyone under fifty), I found that Busoni has made, in effect, his own delightful concert transcription with all manner of totally inauthentic extra markings -- dynamics, articulations, speedings up and slowings down, characterisations (mit Bedeutung, con grazia) and other tinkerings fit to give a modern musicologist apoplexy. All conveyed with the most enthusiastic aplomb by Malcolm Troup, bringing us down to the dance hall, or perhaps the Bierkeller, after the earnest passions of the Bloch.

Copyright © 18 November 2008 Julian Jacobson, London UK






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