BLOCH: Schelomo -- Hebraic Rhapsody. From Jewish Life: Prayer. DIAMOND: Kaddish. SCHWARZ: In Memoriam. BRUCH: Kol Nidrei.
Jonathan Aasgaard (cello); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz.
Avie AV2149 (F) (DDD) TT: 58:10
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High-class kvetching. Three masterpieces (plus the Schwarz), all essentially laments based on Jewish chant. Bruch's Kol Nidrei is both the only one on the program to use traditional tunes and the only one to be written by a Protestant. Bruch's piece is attractive, but not particularly deep -- an example of the Nineteenth Century's taste for exotica (Bruch wrote the Scottish Fantasy immediately before the Kol Nidrei). It's pleasant enough, with even here and there touches of genius (the opening especially), but I've never particularly cared for it.

Gerard Schwarz's In Memoriam rises to the level of the capable, but without the flashes of lightning that distinguish the Bruch. For me, it mostly just goes by.

The major pieces are, of course, the Bloch and the Diamond. Ernest Bloch's "Prayer" from the suite From Jewish Life (1924) for cello and piano -- not to be confused with Baal Shem: 3 Pictures from Hasidic Life (1923) for violin and piano -- is an inspired miniature, based heavily on Jewish cantilation. Schelomo (1916) is something completely other -- a dramatic meditation on Solomon and all his glory. Bloch puts the listener through a range of moods: the pomp of Solomon's court, the pessimism of the king, the soul-wrenching cries of "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity," and finally a vision of peace on the other side of the questioning and challenge. Time and again, Bloch took big strides and big risks. He didn't know how to play safe. Sometimes the risk doesn't come off. When it does, as here, you may convince yourself you're hearing the greatest piece of music ever.

The David Diamond has similar ambitions and at times sounds like an edit of Bloch. Diamond bases the piece on two main themes which clash and intertwine. Unlike Bruch and Schwarz, he creates a rich, varied drama, rather than a single meditative mood. The Kaddish, a prayer praising God's creation, has become a prayer for the dead in Jewish worship. In context, it seems to be about accepting death, as Job has to accept the judgment of God. "Where were you when I made the heavens?" Diamond's piece, however, confronts as much as it accepts. I hear a lot of anger in it.

I've read reviews of this which complained that the program was too much of the same. I don't really agree, any more than I'd say that a CD with two symphonies in a minor key was too homogenous to be interesting. Any longueurs a listener my suffer, in my view, we lay at the door not of the pieces, but of the performers. The performances run to the acceptable, rather than to the fabulous. Aasgaard hasn't got an especially big tone or dramatic temperament, and Schwarz seems caught more in clarifying orchestral textures than in creating drama. In the Bloch and the Diamond, this seems to me a wrong choice, although I've never heard the Bloch orchestra as transparent as it is here. You have your pick of cellists for Schelomo (my current favorite, Fournier and Wallenstein on DG). You even have a choice in the Diamond -- Schwarz leading Janos Starker and the Seattle Symphony on Naxos, a reading with a lot more juice. Aasgaard to me plays careful. There's nothing terrifically wrong or right with his performances. They are Nice. Again, in the Bloch and the Diamond, I want passion and epic movement. Listening to this CD is like watching a tasteful Zero Mostel.

S.G.S. (March 2009)