Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, 4141 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Representing the Music School at Carnegie Mellon University, the string- and piano-playing students of the Philharmonic opened with the First Concerto Grosso (1925) by Ernest Bloch, a Swiss composer who spent much time teaching in the States. Collectors of recordings on the Mercury label will probably be familiar with Bloch’s pair of so-titled works, Rafael Kubelík undertook No.1 in Chicago (mono) and Howard Hanson made stereo tapings of both with the Eastman-Rochester Symphony. Music that has perhaps now fallen away from the regular repertoire, this revival of CG1 from Leonard Slatkin was timely. The propulsive first movement got the evening off to an invigorating start, the lyrical next suggesting nostalgia, such musical expression enduring into the succeeding movement, which becomes an infectious dance, and the Finale is a fugue. A few frailties in the playing aside, this was a well-schooled performance of a Baroque-inspired piece worthy of programming.

Remove violins and violas, add a second piano, a harp, and a large contingent of woodwind (minus clarinets) and brass, plus a choir, and you have Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), written for Boston and Koussevitzky, although the world premiere was in Brussels under Ansermet six days before Massachusetts. Like the Bloch, some inexperience in the playing, and the singing, has to be weighed against the flavour of the music being mostly conveyed. As it was too for Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943, also Boston/Koussevitzky), a score that Slatkin is a master of. He made no concessions to the players (the swift tempo for ‘Game of the Couples’ for example, negotiated with dexterity) and each of them will have made some forward steps on their particular learning curve. The occasional blur, sore spot or mistune notwithstanding, the fire of the Finale, and the blaze of its conclusion (as revised by the composer following the first performance), bodes well for their futures.