The Bach Cello Suites have been among my favorites since childhood. No other works for solo cello have made my personal list of the world’s greatest classical music, populated as it is by piano sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets and works for larger ensembles. So my expectations for this new disc of little-known cello music by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) were not that high. I'm happy to report that this disc is a gem to be treasured -- for the music, performances and sound.
The major works on this disc are the three Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, written in 1956 and 1957, shortly before Bloch’s death. Clearly he was in fine creative form. He grounded these works in Bach’s Suites. Bach’s music stands both as a platform, which supports Bloch’s flights of imagination, and a touchstone to which he returns. To Bloch, the cello is frequently a great human voice--passionate, and fully capable of sustaining the musical line without assistance. Much of the music lies in the lower registers of the instrument, making the occasional flights into the higher registers all the more effective.
Of the three Suites, the first is the most accessible. It is built in four movements. The first, marked prelude, is lyrical but humorless, while the allegro that follows is powerful, dynamic and short. The canzona evokes voices from the past in a cantabile style, and gives way to a swaggering allegro finale, where rhythmic figurations evoke the baroque dance forms. The second Suite follows a similar format, but with even greater extremes of mood. The third shows the most advanced writing of the set. The finale allegro giocoso movement is both sad and passionate at once, with a wonderful uplifting ending that Bach would surely have enjoyed.
The young French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand plays throughout with fire and deep respect for this music. This is the first time I have heard Bertrand, and I can tell you that she is cut from the same cloth as her illustrious French predecessors Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier and Maurice Gendron. Her powerful sound, especially in the bass, and perceptive phrasing serve to illuminate the emotional message in the music. Her finest achievements come in the finale movements, where she bridges conflicting rhythms into a coherent whole, lifting the music off the page and into our hearts as the composer intended. I love the strong nasal sound of the lower strings, and remain captivated by her total commitment to this serious music. She brings much variety to her playing, while her virtuosity always serves the music. I eagerly await her future performances.
The three Suites alone would be short shrift for a CD, but this disc also offers generous fillers, mostly in Bloch’s earlier Jewish style. Meditation Hébraïque, Jewish Life and Nigun are scored for cello and piano; Nirvana is a solo piano piece reminiscent of Debussy. The three Jewish works are by no means schmaltzy (overly sentimental), but forthright and meditative, at least in these well paced performances. Bloch does not offer traditional Jewish themes, but instead infuses his deep Old Testament faith into the music, much as Bach sublimated his religious convictions into much of his secular music.
Another young French artist, Pascal Amoyel, is the pianist on these fillers. I cannot fully judge Amoyal's playing, since he plays mostly in a supporting role. The one piece for piano, Nirvana, lacks the musical profundity of the other music on this disc, but this is no reflection on Amoyel, whose playing here is beyond reproach.
The sound on this harmonia mundi disc is riveting, almost overpowering. In places I hear breathing and the movement of the pedals, but I could not hear the sound of fingers on frets, which suggests optimal microphone placement. The notes are somewhat perfunctory, giving no indication of when most of the filler works were written, and oddly commenting that the Suites remind the author of Benjamin Britten's Cello Suites -- which were written after Bloch’s set! Don’t let that worry you. If you love the cello, this release will not disappoint.