Ernest Bloch’s Engrossing Concerto Grosso #1

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I’LL TELL YOU A STRANGE THING about this unjustly unknown but brilliant piece of music: Since I first heard it in the 1980s, hardly a day has gone by without some part of it (most often the driving last movement) just popping into my head out of nowhere. Why this should happen, I do not know, apart from the fact that this is the work of true art — to become absorbed into the soul of its witness. And this is what has happened to me in relation to this short work of genius. It fills me with encouragement.

Written in 1925 by Ernest Bloch, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1880 then emigrated to the USA in 1916, his Concerto Grosso No.1 for Strings and Piano Obbligato was written to show his students that it was possible to utilise baroque style and techniques in a 20th century setting. For this reason, this kind of music is often referred to as being ‘neo-baroque’. The term, Concerto Grosso, is one that was used extensively in the baroque era to refer to pieces with orchestra and soloists blended in. (For example, George Frideric Handel composed two sets of Concerti Grossi). Bloch takes that form and brings in a piano as a big part of the blended soloists. The four movements are 1) Prelude, 2) Dirge, 3) Pastorale and Rustic Dances (which are based upon folk tunes from Switzerland), and 4) Fugue.

As a side-note, it was in listening to this piece that I first became aware of what are known as ‘Diminution’ and ‘Augmentation’ in musical composing. Augmentation occurs when the composer takes a theme and then reduces the speed of it and adds it into the mix by way of majestic contrast. Diminution is the opposite. (If you are interested to know more, these terms are well explained and illustrated on this link: https://www.musictheoryacademy.com/…/augmentation-and-dimi…/ ). You can hear a superb example of augmentation in the last fugal movement of this piece, starting around 19:55 timing, while the driving fugal parts continue to be weaved in. It is a very powerful moment in the work and a real coup compositionally. In fact, it is this very madly contrapuntal fugal section which most often pops into my head. I wonder what Bloch would think of this: That someone who wasn’t even a twinkle in his mother’s eye when it was written would, ninety-five years later, be enraptured and encouraged by that genius use of augmentation. Such is the power of art! For the process of encouragement and good cheer are what lie at the heart of this precious composition.

As a composer and teacher, Bloch had “argued against what he saw as the intellectual sterility of much of the music of the avant garde”. I couldn’t agree more! Thus, this work manages to be modern, yet still filled with emotion and heartsong. I have heard many performances of this work over the years but none so powerful in its advocacy as this one in 2018 by the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia under its conductor, Harutyun Arzumanyan. Right from the very first chord, the listener is captivated by the energy and commitment not only of the work but of the players. While all the players are superb, the young pianist here (Hripsime Aghaqaryan) stands out as especially wonderful. Small wonder that a year before this recording, she had won first prize in the Armenian International Music Competition and a year after this recording, she went on to win first prize for piano in the prestigious Khachaturian International Competition (2019) in Armenia.

Bloch taught in a number of US settings, ending his days in the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s and early 1950s. Before he died in 1959, he spent his last eighteen years living in Agate Beach, Oregon. In 2006, a booklet was written about him, entitled “Ernest Bloch: Composer in Nature’s University”. A fitting epitaph.

Please enjoy this 22-minute gem of a modern Concerto Grosso…


© Alan Morrison, 2020

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