Bloch: Helvetia; Suite for Viola & Orchestra; Suite hébraïque

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WORKS: Helvetia; Suite for Viola & Orchestra; Suite hébraïque
PERFORMER: Gérard Caussé (viola); Suisse Romande Orchestra/Lior Shambadal
Although written long after he had settled in the United States, Bloch’s Helvetia pays homage to the country of his birth. The composer’s intention seems to have been to depict the historical evolution of the people of Switzerland through their fight for liberty and independence within a quasi-symphonic framework. Along this journey there are frequent allusions to the country’s topography of mountains and forests, and at its bombastic climax Bloch even quotes directly from a traditional song from Geneva. The quieter outer sections of the work are particularly evocative. By contrast, the passages that depict national strife and conflict seem rather empty, and the melodic material seems insufficiently distinctive to carry the listener through the extended argument. Far more interesting is the larger-scale Viola Suite, its exotic and elaborate orchestration not only illustrating Bloch’s fascination with the Far East, but also surprisingly sharing common textural and harmonic ground with the music of Szymanowski. It receives a strongly committed and expressive performance from Gérard Caussé and the lush orchestral accompaniment is enhanced by the resonant acoustics of Geneva’s Victoria Hall. With the Suite hébraïque Bloch returns to the familiar rhapsodic style of Schelomo and Baal Shem. Once again Caussé plays with great intensity, but I wonder whether he could have effected a brighter timbre in the final movement, thus providing greater contrast to the sombre emotions of the ‘Rhapsodie’ and ‘Processional’. Erik Levi