grossi Nos. 1-2; String Quartet No. 1 (arr. Atlas)
Atlas Camerata/Dalia Atlas, cond.
ASV CD DCA 1055. TT: 70:31
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If you think of Ernest Bloch as strictly a "Jewish" composer (because of Schelomo and Baal Shem), these cosmopolitan scores will surprise you. The "concerto grosso" format suggests a neoclassical throwback, but the overall idiom is in fact romantic: only a couple of fugues and the second concerto's slow-fast sectional overture nod to the antique forms.
Howard Hanson's Eastman performances had the catalogue pretty much to themselves through the LP era. Hanson's interpretations were understanding, the performances prepared well as always, but the smallish orchestra and Mercury's shallow-bright sonics emphasized the brittle, astrigent side of the music.
Dalia Atlas takes a more affectionate approach, seeking out greater emotional depth, drawing warm if sometimes diffuse tone from her eponymous chamber orchestra. In her hands, the light texture and rich harmony of the First Concerto's Dirge suggests Ravel, while the Second Concerto's middle movements blossom with a very "English" pastoral lyricism. But, for my taste, the contours are too consistently soft-edged. Everything registers clearly enough in the fugues, and I appreciate Atlas's attempt to bring out expressive values in the subjects, but these movements could use the sharper definition that crisper attacks and releases would provide. And she doesn’t always shape whole movements quite clearly, so that some of the final cadences simply hang fire - the music just thuds to an inconclusive stop.
Atlas's expansion of Bloch's string quartet, taking in just the first two of the original four movements, still runs over twenty-eight minutes. In this harmonically ambitious music, the use of a small ensemble helps negotiate the music's trickier chromatic turns, and provides amplitude at peak moments without straining the tonal resources of single players. The two movements don't seem to have much to do with each other. The first recalls Transfigured Night -- although Schoenberg holds interest better over thirty minutes than Bloch manages for sixteen -- while both the driving energy at the second movement's start and its brooding spaces later on suggest Shostakovich.
I initially blamed the piano for the plummy textures in the first concerto, but the second, strings-only concerto sounds much the same, owing to the mildly overresonant recording, which also further waters down definition in the fugues. These performances are all right, but I'd go for Agnieszka Duczmal's versions of the concerti grossi (cpo) -- brighter and crisper, but no less expressive, and with more appealing fillers.