Thursday, 11 July 2013

Beautiful playing from violist Hong-Mei Xiao in works for viola and orchestra by Ernest Bloch on a new release from Naxos

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)  was born in Geneva and began playing the violin at age nine, making his first attempts at composition soon afterwards. In 1891 he entered the Geneva Conservatory of Music studying violin with Louis Rey, later studying music theory and composition with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950). In 1896, on the advice of the great violinist, Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), Bloch furthered his studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels where his teachers included Ysaÿe.

He later travelled around Europe, moving to Germany, where he studied composition with Iwan Knorr (1853-1916) at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt.  In 1903, he travelled to Paris, before returning to Geneva. In 1916, Bloch settled in the United States, taking American citizenship in 1924. He held several teaching appointments in the U.S. with George Antheil, Frederick Jacobi, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, and Roger Sessions among his pupils. In 1917 Bloch became the first teacher of composition at Mannes College - The New School for Music, a post he held for three years.

From 1920 - 1925 he was the first Musical Director of the newly formed Cleveland Institute of Music, going on to become director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 1941, Bloch moved to the small coastal community of Agate Beach, Oregon and lived there for the rest of his life. He taught summer courses at the University of California, Berkeley until 1952. He died in 1959 in Portland, Oregon at the age of 78.

Bloch has often been considered a Jewish composer and it is true that his Jewish heritage was important to him. Yet his music contains a variety of influences such as Renaissance, neo-Classical, neo-Romantic, Swiss, Native American, Chinese, and Gregorian chant.  His works include an Opera in 3 acts, Macbeth, (1909, Geneva-Paris), vocal and choral works, orchestral works including two symphonies, concertante works including a violin concerto, chamber, instrumental and piano works.

The work that first drew me to the music of Bloch was his Sacred Service recorded by Geoffrey Simon and the London Symphony Orchestra and Zemel Choir for Chandos Records; a glorious work well worth hearing.

Naxos Records have just released a new recording by Hong-Mei Xiao (viola) with Mariusz Smolij  and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV  playing works by Bloch for viola and orchestra.


Born in China, Hong-Mei Xiao was the first-prize winner of the 1987 Geneva International Music Competition. Her extraordinary artistry and brilliant virtuoso technique have won her accolades from critics across the globe as she has established herself as an international artist. She has toured throughout Europe, North America, and the Far East, performing in major concert halls appearing as soloist with renowned orchestras.

Ms. Xiao has held the honour of United States Artistic Ambassador during extensive concert tours of Europe. As a special guest soloist, Ms. Xiao was invited to give the premiere performance of Alfred Schnittke's Viola Concerto with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. The Geneva Tribune heralded her as the "ideal interpreter of the music". She has been invited as an adjudicator for the 2013 Lionel Tertis International Viola Festival and Competition in the United Kingdom. Ms. Xiao is currently on the faculty at the University of Arizona School of Music.

Hong-Mei Xiao was the featured soloist in the world premiere recording of the original and newly revised versions of the Bartok Viola Concerto. This recording with the Budapest Philharmonic has received international critical acclaim since its release by Naxos.

Bloch’s Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life) (1923) was not originally for viola and orchestra but was arranged by Hong-Mei Xiao, in 2005.

In No.1 Vidui (Contrition) Hong-Mei Xiao plays a lovely theme with a distinctive Jewish sound against a gentle orchestral accompaniment, rising to a slight climax midway. No.2 Nigun (Improvisation) has the feel of a film epic as the orchestra opens suddenly. The viola enters above the lower strings and continues with some attractive effects before the return of the orchestra in the opening theme. This piece has a more concerto feel than the first, settling half way through to a lovely melody with some tricky parts for the violist and, finally, a lovely hushed ending. The lively final piece, No.3 Simchas Torah (Rejoicing in the Holy Scriptures), takes its theme from the wedding song Di mzinke oisgegeben (The Youngest Daughter Marries) with a lovely flowing melody leading to a rich coda. This is an attractive work beautifully played.

The Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1919) was one of Bloch’s first works to be written in the USA. The Lento – Allegro – Moderato opens with an orchestral outburst, before some dark sounds are heard from the viola with a mysterious orchestral accompaniment. Soon a melancholy melody emerges tinged with an Eastern rather than Jewish influence as the viola weaves around the orchestra. Part way through, a livelier folksy theme enters but the music soon returns to its earlier flowing, rhapsodic feel. There are dramatic passages before the music leads to a glorious glowing coda.

Striding lower strings and viola open the Allegro ironico moving quickly forward. There are wild woodwind passages, before a slow, quiet section where the viola intones a richly ornamented theme. The striding theme returns with sections of the orchestra scurrying around. Later a broader melody appears for the orchestra as the music again quietens. The music gains momentum again before the soloist and orchestra make their way to a sudden end.

Harp and strings atmospherically open the Lento before the viola enters in a lovely melody with oboe accompaniment. The viola continues with its deeply rich melody unfolding over a mysterious orchestra. Hong-Mei Xiao is magnificent in this movement as it works its way to a lovely coda.

Finally there is a lively Molto vivo full of percussion, adding again an oriental feel. The music really shifts along and, as the movement progresses, it works itself into a broader melody before arriving at a slower section allowing the lovely tone of Xiao’s viola to shine through. Soon the momentum increases again rising to a glorious climax before dropping back to a quiet gentle section, but the music soon surges ahead to a decisive coda.

Suite hébraïque (1951) is a late work that opens with a Rapsodie, a Jewish, or rather, Hebrew sounding melody, which weaves its way through a brief climax, becoming more passionate as it proceeds. There is a brief solo viola passage before developing a rather timeless feeling to the music. Processional: Andante con moto opens with a plodding orchestral theme with the viola rhapsodising over it. Affirmation: Maestoso opens with a flowing orchestral theme that is soon joined by the viola. The Jewish flavour just peeks through as the music progresses, eventually leading to a rich coda. Again Hong-Mei Xiao is an excellent soloist with a lovely full rich tone.

Mariusz Smolij and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV have made a number of recordings for Naxos including works by Miklós Rózsa and Eugene Zádor. They are a very fine orchestra indeed with Mariusz Smolij directing very idiomatic performances. They are well recorded in Studio 22 of Hungarian Radio, Budapest.

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