June 2008

Bloch - Violin Concerto; Lees - Violin Concerto
Elmar Oliveira, violin; National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, John McLaughlin Williams, cond.
Artek AR-0042-2
Format: CD
Released: 2008

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

What a splendid idea it was to have Elmar Oliveira record these two concertos together! The Bloch is simply one of the great violin concertos; among those of the last century it has few peers. It is a compellingly dramatic piece, in which many find images of Old Testament prophets, though Bloch himself spoke of a Native American influence. Musicians have always had good things to say about it, but it is very seldom performed. Joseph Szigeti introduced it in 1938 and made the first recording; Yehudi Menuhin recorded it 25 years later and played it till the end of his career. There have been three or four quite good recordings on CD, but the superstars tend to ignore the work.

One of the Bloch Concerto’s "few peers" is Benjamin Lees’s stunning, substantial and even more neglected concerto. Henryk Szeryng introduced it in 1963; its latter-day champions have been Ruggiero Ricci and Oliveira, both of them adventurous explorers beyond the so-called standard repertory. Ricci’s fine recording of the Lees Concerto on a Turnabout LP did the work proud, but both concertos gain in several respects on this Artek release. Oliveira’s playing is as winning for its depth as for its sheer brilliance; the orchestra, which has a lot to say in both works, is solidly in the picture, with a real sense of give-and-take; the spacious, unfussy sound is a definite asset and, in a curious but undeniable sense, this inspired pairing makes both concertos appear stronger, simply by showing themselves worthy of each other.

The documentation, poorly edited, tells us little, but these powerful and penetrating performances tell us all we really need to know about this terrific music.