"Shake and shake
The catsup bottle.
And then a lot'll."
It seems for quite some time we never got any new recordings of Ernest Bloch's Schelomo. Then, in the past two years, we seem to have gotten a slew of them. Or a lot'll.
Internationally famous, award-winning Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta in her album Prayer explores several interesting paths. One is that the program follows in the footsteps of possibly the most-famous cellist of all time, Pablo Casals, with one of Casal's pieces alongside those of Ernest Bloch and Dmitri Shostakovich. Two, it involves works with a Jewish theme. And, three, it includes Bloch's "Prayer," which Ms. Gabetta has played many times as an encore during concerts and which inspired her to include it in the album and make it the album's title.
First up on Ms. Gabetta's program are three pieces called "From Jewish Life" and two other short works by Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). The first of these is "Prayer," and this time, rather than as an encore, she plays it first. It's a sweet, mournful, soul-searching sort of affair, and it does its job introducing us to the type of music coming up throughout the album. Ms. Gabetta's playing highlights the lyrical qualities of Bloch's works, her cello flowing through the notes effortlessly, her emphasis more on the beauty of the music than on its obvious sorrowful qualities. Still, it's clearly sad music, played slowly and emotionally, so I don't want to imply that Ms. Gabetta misses its main point. It's just that she makes the sadness sound lovely and almost inviting.
The first group of Bloch tunes ends with "Meditation hebraique," which dates from 1924 and which Bloch dedicated to Pablo Casals; thus, another Casals connection. Here, Ms. Gabetta allows her cello to express more anguish than in the previous pieces.
Next are four movements "From Jewish Folk Poetry" by Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). They date from 1948 and describe traditional Russian life under Tsarist rule many years earlier. The composer intended his little tone poems as small protests against the anti-Semitic tone of a Soviet decree of the time condemning modern music. The works have a simple, plaintive quality about them, and under Ms. Gabetta's guidance even the more up-tempo tunes possess a solemn if again lyrical feeling.
Then we come to the program's penultimate piece, Schelomo (Solomon), which Bloch wrote in 1916-17, one of his "Jewish Cycle." Bloch wrote of this period in his composing life, "I do not propose or desire to attempt a reconstruction of the music of the Jews or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic. It is rather the Hebrew spirit that interests me, the complex, ardent, agitated soul that vibrates for me in the Bible."
Ms. Gabetta ends the program with El Cant dels Ocells ("The Song of the Birds") by the Spanish cellist, conductor, and composer Pablo Casals (1876-1973). Although Casals did not intend his composition to have anything to do with the Jewish experience, it makes an appropriately touching conclusion to the proceedings and fits into the mood of the album nicely, played sweetly and tenderly by Ms. Gabetta.
Accompanying Ms. Gabetta on the first nine tracks is the Amsterdam Sinfonietta under the direction of Candida Thompson. Accompanying Schelomo is Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon. And accompanying the final number is the Cello Ensemble Amsterdam Sinfonietta. The total timing for the disc is under an hour, which would seem short measure for a classical album; nevertheless, given the unsmiling nature of the music, it's probably enough.
As I say, I found everything attractively played by Ms. Gabetta, if not always as expressively as I'd have liked. It's as though she tried to make what is essentially a downer of an album into something sweeter and more reassuring. Maybe it was just too saccharine for my taste, or maybe I still had Zuill Bailey's more muscular approach in mind while listening. In any case, she will please her fans, and there's no question she makes beautiful music.
Producers and engineers Jared Sacks and Rainer Maillard recorded the music at Leiden, Netherlands and Lyon, France in 2012 and 2014. The engineers have miked the cello rather close up, so it tends to loom large in the sound field and dominate everything else. I'm not sure one would ever hear this kind of sound live, where the solo instrument and the orchestra would appear more integrated, better balanced. The sound is also a bit flat dimensionally and surprisingly soft from this source, Sony usually providing a more transparent midrange. Nevertheless, the sonics are quite listenable, easy on the ear; and the somewhat soft, warm acoustic does tend to complement the plaintive nature of the music.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: