Bloch: Schelomo; Voice In The Wilderness; Caplet: Epiphanie; Ravel: Kaddish

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BLOCH Voice in the Wilderness. Schelomo. CAPLET Épiphanie. RAVEL 2 Mélodies hébraïques: Kaddisch (arr. Ravel) Raphael Wallfisch (vc); Benjamin Wallfisch, cond; BBC Natl O of Wales NIMBUS 5913 (75:13)

This album holds deep personal significance for the performers. In a video interview released in promotion of it, Raphael Wallfisch discusses his conception of the program as a memorial to his family, particularly his four grandparents, who perished in the Holocaust. Having engaged his son, Benjamin, to conduct the recording, Wallfisch views it as both a musical and a familial statement. Additionally, Wallfisch emphasizes the vivid “cinematic” drama of the Bloch pieces, for which he considered his son’s close involvement with film music to be a natural fit.

Given these factors, it is not surprising that the Wallfisches’ performances on this disc are rhapsodic and dramatic. And that is what this music demands. The two Bloch pieces, when played well, can be shattering experiences for the listener: unremittingly grim, with the cello as tormented protagonist. The Ravel Kaddisch , based on a traditional cantorial melody, captures the outermost depths of reverence and mourning. And Caplet’s rarely-performed Épiphanie is an ecstatic portrayal of an Ethiopian telling of the Adoration of the Magi. There is no moderation of emotion in these works; this is music to captivate, move, and overwhelm the listener.

Bloch’s Voices in the Wilderness was written in 1936, a period during which he produced some of his most substantial works. (The Sacred Service was composed in 1933 and the piano sonata in 1935.) It was originally conceived for cello and piano, and was reworked for piano solo as Visions and Prophecies , which presents the orchestral expositions to the first five pieces. Familiarity with both versions provides an intriguing contrast; the role of the cello in Voices in the Wilderness is one of commentator on the orchestral material presented in the first half of each movement. As evidenced by Visions and Prophecies , this material can succeed on its own; it is not simply introductory but traces a complete musical arc. Is the cello response therefore redundant? Some movements work better than others. The second, for example, is atmospheric and pensive in the orchestral section. It ends with an upward, questioning melodic gesture. Left here in the Visions and Prophecies , the question lingers enigmatically. In Voices in the Wilderness , the cello begins its response with outraged scales. The orchestral accompaniment thickens and becomes more dissonant. In this movement, the second half constitutes a reassessment of the ideas presented in the first half rather than simply an elaboration of them. The third movement’s exposition, majestic with vivid coloration unavailable to a solo piano, feels like a public statement of triumph and benefits from the individual perspective offered by the cello response; moreover, it is brief enough that its restatement is not unwelcome. But the foreboding first movement achieves its full emotional impact and reaches a convincing full stop before the cello entrance, as does the idyllic fourth movement. Finally, the coda to the fifth movement ends in such eloquent silence as to render the boisterous sixth movement almost disruptive. Qualms about the composition’s structure aside, Wallfisch’s playing exhibits an impressive range of emotion, texture, and color. His cadenza in the fifth movement is especially effective in its bold, emphatic statements and its relentless build.

Ravel’s Kaddisch was composed in 1914 for piano and voice as one of the 2 Mélodies hébraïques . Ravel orchestrated both songs in 1919–20. Wallfisch’s approach to the melody is appropriately improvisatory in its fluctuations of tempo and sudden shifts of dynamics. He even produces some strikingly vocal portamentos. But without the words, much of the emotional impact of the piece is lost. This is not simply because of the profundity of the text; rather, the articulation of specific consonants and vowels has a timbral effect that cannot be replicated instrumentally. Additionally, the orchestration obscures the insistent treble octaves that provide the focal point of the original piano accompaniment. Ravel was a masterful orchestrator, and this version of the Kaddisch is musically pleasing, but it does not have the impact of the original.

André Caplet’s Épiphanie has been recorded only a handful of times—inexplicably for such an accessible and attractive work, and one that offers the soloist a true virtuoso spectacle. The piece is in two large movements connected by an extended solo cadenza. Though subtitled “Musical Fresco after an Ethiopian Legend,” the first movement is solidly in the sound world of Impressionism—perhaps closer to Roussel than to Debussy in its harmonic palette. The feeling is sunny and ingratiating throughout. The cello part features extended pizzicato passages and frequent harmonics. The cadenza is accompanied by a pedal tone in the double basses and by a quiet, steady drumbeat, which the program notes identify as “a characteristically Ethiopian element.” The cadenza itself sounds fairly European, despite some pentatonic material and occasional uses of the Semitic scale. This is not a complaint; the music is impassioned and colorful, and Wallfisch’s playing is commanding. The second movement, the “Danse des Petits Negrès,” takes a more exotic tone with a rapid, heavily-accented 5/4 meter and a repeated whirling motif in the cello. Brief musical phrases, repeated in groups of two, create a “primitive” effect. The constant repetition becomes predictable, and the Orientalist subtext is highly dated. But the movement is generally exciting, especially in its final pages.

Bloch’s Schelomo is the most widely-performed work on the disc. It is here that the Wallfisches are most open to comparison. Were I not familiar with the Rostropovich/Bernstein recording of the piece, I would be unreserved in my praise of the current performance. And indeed, it is a very fine performance: imposing, brooding, and highly effective. But where Wallfisch rages, Rostropovich thunders. Where Wallfisch sobs, Rostropovich wails. The same can be said of the conducting: Wallfisch’s Schelomo is dramatic but does not quite achieve the gripping immediacy of Bernstein’s. It is nonetheless a vivid and moving rendition of the piece, and the disc as a whole makes for very rewarding listening. Excellent, vivid sound engineering is a welcome bonus.

FANFARE: Myron Silberstein

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NI5913

  • UPC: 710357591327

  • Label: Nimbus

  • Composer: André Caplet, Ernest Bloch, Maurice Ravel

  • Conductor: Benjamin Wallfisch

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC National Orchestra of Wales

  • Performer: Raphael Wallfisch


  1. Épiphanie, for cello & orchestra

    Composer: André Caplet

    Ensemble: BBC National Orchestra of Wales

    Performer: Raphael Wallfisch (Cello)

    Conductor: Benjamin Wallfisch

  2. Mélodies hébraïques (2): no 1, Kaddisch

    Composer: Maurice Ravel

    Performer: Raphael Wallfisch (Cello)

    Conductor: Benjamin Wallfisch

  3. Voice in the Wilderness

    Composer: Ernest Bloch

    Performer: Raphael Wallfisch (Cello)

    Conductor: Benjamin Wallfisch

  4. Schelomo

    Composer: Ernest Bloch

    Performer: Raphael Wallfisch (Cello)

    Conductor: Benjamin Wallfisch