Bloch’s Schelomo – Work No. 57 in our collection

Ernest Bloch (24.07.1880 – 15.07.1959) was born in Switzerland to Jewish parents. He began playing the violin at the age of nine and began composing soon after. He settled in the United States in 1916 and took  US citizenship some eight years later.

Bloch’s musical style does not fit easily into any of the usual categories. He sought to find a way of expressing his Jewish faith through music. This resulted in a series of works that climaxed initially with the ‘Israel’ Symphony and Schelomo (a Rhapsodie hébraïque) for cello and orchestra. Both were completed in 1916 and successfully premiered the following year at the same Carnegie Hall concert under conductor Artur Bodanzky.

Schelomo established Bloch’s reputation internationally and remains his most popular work. Although its melodic and harmonic profiling is redolent of Jewish folk music and chanting (of which the composer made a special study) and reflects the natural inflexions and cadences of spoken Hebrew, it is undeniably the composer’s own invention. Bloch intended the solo cello to embody the voice of the biblical King Solomon (‘Schelomo’ in Hebrew), while the orchestra represents (according to Bloch) ‘the world surrounding him and his experiences of life; at the same time, it often seems to reflect Solomon’s inward thought while the solo instrument is giving voice to his words’.

Our top recommendation for this popular piece is Stephen Isserlis’ second (2012) recording of the work with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. On this recording both soloist and conductor recognise that the music’s poetic rhapsodising is key to Bloch’s vision. Together they ensure that the score’s pacing retains a strong sense of forward narrative and structural cohesion. Stephen Isserlis and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin move together as a single entity with no sense of sonic or emotional conflict as the work requires. Whilst Isserlis emphasises the dark nature of the score his playing has a haunting quality that has a most moving effect on the listener. There is a magical, ethereal sense of mystery about the performance that makes this recording stand out from the many other fine examples on disc.

This SACD also includes Frank Bridge’s Oration – Concerto elegiaco for cello and orchestra and The Loneliest Wilderness, elegy for cello and orchestra by Isserlis’ close friend Stephen Hough. Altogether a superb album that ought to appear in every music collector’s library.

View the other works in our collection.