ARTEK Recordings

Reviews of CD 42

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Ernest Bloch, Benjamin Lees, Elmar Oliveira - violin, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, John McLaughlin
Williams - conductor

ARTEK RECORDINGS CD42: Ernest Bloch, Benjamin Lees

Elmar Oliveira - violin
John McLaughlin Williams - conductor
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine

Ernest Bloch Violin Concerto
Benjamin Lees Violin Concerto

* * * Nominated for 2009 Grammy Awards * * *
Category 102: "Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra"



"Summary for the Busy Executive: No reservations – terrific performances of two magnificent concerti.

"After decades of neglect, two recordings of Bloch's violin concerto have appeared practically simultaneously: Zina Schiff's account on Naxos and this one by Elmar Oliveira on Artek. I've made no secret of my love for Bloch, especially for this concerto, but in the past I've lamented that no recording, rare as it may have been, came close to unlocking even half the power of that score – not even Szigeti and Munch or Menuhin and Kletzki. Heretofore I liked best Hyman Bress, Jindrich Rohan, and the Prague Symphony on Supraphon, but it sprawled quite a bit. Zina Schiff and José Serebrier's reading cohered more, but Schiff's tone didn't meet the heroic demands Bloch places upon the soloist. The violin was Bloch's own instrument, and he played well enough to become a pupil of Ysaÿe, although the Belgian urged him to put aside his instrument for composition. Bloch certainly knew what constitutes an effective, idiomatic violin part.

"This doesn't deny the considerable challenges for the soloist. A violinist needs merely fingers of steel, a big tone, muscular lyricism, a preternatural sensitivity to ensemble, and lots of brains. You could say mostly the same for the conductor and the orchestra. In that way (although in that way alone), it reminds me of the Brahms and the Sibelius. Incidentally, one shouldn't regard this as a "Jewish" work. The composer himself painstakingly pointed this out, specifically citing the first theme of the first movement as an American Indian tune. Bloch's language, structurally pentatonic here, may belong to the folk music of both Native Americans and European Jews, but the real connection is that the same person wrote both the concerto and Schelomo, rather than a shared inspiration or impulse to express the Jewish "soul."

"The first movement especially demands of the soloist all the above virtues, plus sheer stamina. It runs twenty minutes, and the soloist seems to play just about every bar. The cadenza alone lasts at least four minutes. Overall, the movement begins with a fanfare and moves into a majestic cortège, punctuated by "barbaric" cries and alarums. The fanfare, by the way, accounts for more than half the discourse in the movement, as Bloch varies this basic idea with apparently endless invention. Themes come from a bag of notey bits, which Bloch combines and recombines for new directions in the narrative. The procession builds over a long, mighty span before settling into a still, meditative section. It turns out that the violin and orchestra merely catch their breath here. The music ramps up again before collapsing into yet another appearance of the quieter material, but this is no mere repetition. The emotional meaning becomes darker, more pained, and leads to the violin solo reflecting on most of the ideas presented so far. It says a lot for Bloch's technique that the cadenza doesn't simply go by, but is a cohesive advance of the musical and emotional argument. It says a lot for Oliveira that he presents that cadenza with greater strength and conviction than any other player I've heard. Bloch raises the listener's expectation that the movement end quietly, but in the last less-than-a-minute the soloist whips up the orchestra for one final flare.

"César Franck's cyclical principles of construction, of all things, influenced Bloch's thinking over larger spans. This means that the same little bits tend to show up from movement to movement. However, Bloch employs them far more subtly than Franck and usually where you least expect them. Furthermore, Bloch habitually varies the bits rhythmically to such an extent that in effect they become genuinely new. The purely orchestral opening to the slow second movement, for example, takes a dotted-rhythm theme from the violin in the first movement and irons it out. The emotional temperature of the movement runs cooler than the first. It presents itself like a simple song, with a silvery, moonlight beauty to it, but in that it deceives the listener. Bloch has written about seven minutes based on only two extremely short ideas and never loses one's interest. Also, before this particular recording, I never realized how contrapuntal this movement is. It seems like melody plus accompaniment, but extremely incisive subsidiary lines comment almost subliminally upon the surface, and the two motives, plus variants, often sound simultaneously.

"The orchestra hurls out another blaze of brass (the opening to the second movement, disguised), heralding the finale, and the violin, more meditatively, launches into the fanfare from the first movement. This leads seamlessly to a radiant pastoral section, like a summer day in the country, as joyous as the finale to Beethoven's violin concerto. However, earlier, more troubling ideas begin to move into the discourse. Regret and sadness build to anxiety and crisis. The music attempts to return to the innocence of the pastoral and fails. However, the fanfare returns and, with it, heroism. The violin and orchestra lead out on that note to the end.

"The concerto form has always drawn American Modernist Benjamin Lees. He's written for the usual suspects as well as chamber concerti, a concerto for orchestra, concerti for orchestral section leaders, and concerti for more than one soloist. He doesn't quite reach the concerto output of Martinu (other than Milhaud, I can't think of anyone who does), but the concerto seems somehow just as central to his work nevertheless. One can fairly call Lees a dramatic composer in the sense that contrasting ideas clash throughout his music in very interesting ways, and this fits the concerto like a Saville-Row suit.

"I first heard Lees's 1959 violin concerto from a Seventies LP released by Vox/Turnabout in their "Composer in America" series. Ruggiero Ricci soloed with the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Szeryng premiered the work in 1963. I loved it when I first heard it, but I never expected another recording in my lifetime. On this new CD, I must say that the concerto strikes me as a completely different and, to my mind, even better piece. A new work of substance doesn't often reveal its secrets or even its most important secrets right away. You need performers coming at it from many standpoints before the piece comes into focus. Indeed, even something as well-established as the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra still draws a wide range of views. Perhaps you can measure the life of a work in that range. The Lees concerto is no longer one thing. This second recording establishes the necessary range, so sometimes things work out, despite a fifty-year wait. Just don't make the mistake of holding your breath.

"The Lees concerto is just as tightly-written as the Bloch, but it is leaner, slightly less certain in its psychic stance, and yet more direct in expression. Lees also gives the soloist an heroic part, although the heroism leans more to Humphrey Bogart than to Errol Flynn. A bit of the nineteenth century clings to Bloch, as it does to Mahler, while Lees, although fundamentally Romantic in his creative impulse (like almost every American composer), belongs wholly and firmly to the Modern era, and we, after all, prefer more grit on our heroes.

"Lees leans more to the Stravinskian side of things in his musical language, without sounding particularly like Stravinsky. His concerto sings cleanly and dances with muscle. It reaches a level of intensity that may for some bring the Shostakovich violin concerti to mind, although his music doesn't sound much like Shostakovich's, either. He also gives the impression of having said exactly what he wanted to, without irony or euphemism, and this, believe it or not, confuses some listeners. In many violin concerti (certainly in the Schoenberg and the Sibelius, for example), one finds an element of looking back, a kind of visionary nostalgia that listeners have come to expect. When it's not there, they miss it. It sometimes comes down to mere mood, sometimes to quotation from previous works, sometimes to the recall of themes. It usually appears at rhetorical points of rest. Lees's concerto emphasizes the here and now and continually looks forward. It relaxes at certain points, as a work of any length must, but not with a backward glance. The musical argument always moves along, without backtracking. Even when one metaphorically catches one's breath, some goal is always in sight, and while Lees does re-use certain thematic shapes, the effect is rather that of a golden thread running throughout the concerto fabric, rather than an attraction to the past.

"The first movement, tests the soloist not only physically, but also musically. Making sense and getting through are the soloist's primary jobs. Like much of Lees, the music is stark, intense, even a bit angry. Lees describes it as another slow movement, but to me it's more a walking tempo. It begins with a low dark line in the strings, which a solo flute extends – essentially, we're staking out low and high. After this incredibly brief introduction, the solo violin enters somewhere in the middle, elaborating on the strings. In stark, two-part counterpoint the strings once again take up their idea, and the soloist comments upon it. A more rhythmic variant of the opening comes in for contrast, and Lees combines this with the low-string idea in its original form and orchestration, as the violin elaborates. A more lyrical motive, in triple time, enters, with overtones of a waltz. These gestures constitute the meat of the movement. Without a score, I can't be sure, but I certainly don't hear "sonata movement." Instead, the conflict of these various ideas suggests new places to go, new twists. This leads to a cadenza in which the solo violin rearranges the thematic components in new ways once more. The orchestra re-enters with a shortened recap of the opening, and the movement ends. Nevertheless, all this technical stuff most listeners will probably find beside the point once they hear the movement. If you're drawn to the Shostakovich violin concerti or to the Prokofiev second, this movement has much the same brooding, lowering quality. However, the soloist doesn't Struggle Against Fate. In a sense, Lees paints "inner weather," as opposed to an agent acting in the world. The movement keeps saying to me, "This is the way things are."

"The slow movement took a bit of time to drop into place for me, mainly because its form, like that of the first, is so obviously the result of process rather than classical precedent. Lee writes that his theory of symphonic success comes down to the quality of the slow movement, a notion he got from his teacher George Antheil. In general, Lees's slow movements are wonderful, something not all that easy to bring off. Left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate to the fast and rhythmic. I'm shallow. Sue me. I can easily fall asleep during a slow movement, and indeed I have, to some very well-known, highly-regarded pieces. This movement isn't a song per se, although it sings in its own way. It begins with what I like to call "Mahlerian thirds" in two solo flutes, outlining a corkscrew idea. The building method follows closely the pattern established in the first movement: the juxtaposition and elaboration of a few ideas drives the musical argument. The main gestures of this movement, in addition to the corkscrew, are a wide leap up with the fallback of a semitone (which may relate to the opening idea of the first movement) and a rhythmic motive that emphasizes stamping repeated notes. By the way, pay close attention to the upward theme. It has consequences in the third movement. Indeed, at one point, Lees cuts the idea short to simply a falling semitone, which at one point comes out to a series of "amen" cadences. Again, the mood is grim, leavened by momentary bits of brightness. Elements of scherzo grotesquerie also break out at times. Lees has been called surrealist, if that word can be applied at all to something so highly logical as his music. Here, it comes down to mood and the volatility of mood changes. At any rate, unlike classical slow movements, with the Lees you don't wind up where you began. Rather, you seem to emerge from a dark, twisty tunnel.

"The finale is quick and quirky, with the character, though not the form, of a rondo. The ideas of the finale definitely share a family look with those of the previous movements. In the words of Elgar, they all come from the same oven, and thus the finale seems to grow out of what has come before. The violin flies both unpredictably and powerfully over its material. However, within the movement lurks a surprise. The downward semitone gets a lot of stress. The violin part becomes increasingly virtuosic, and about a minute before the end, the orchestra declaims Mozart's "Jupiter" motive (harmonized by Lees, however) several times, as the violin throws off chains of pyrotechnical flash. You recognize this not only as the arrival point of the movement, but of the entire concerto. The downward semitones have been molded and shaped to this moment, and the motive has appeared in subsidiary parts or disguised in all three movements – as Henry James said, "the figure in the carpet." For instance, the "Mahler thirds" opening of the slow movement turns out to be simply a slight chromatic variant. This is a concerto of musical revelation, akin to the appearance of the chorale in the Berg concerto.

"Oliveira is simply magnificent in the Bloch and quite fine in the Lees. The difference may just come down to something as mundane as familiarity. After all, as neglected as the Bloch concerto has been, it's practically repertory compared to the Lees. One can trace a tradition going back to Szigeti and Munch. The Lees, on the other hand, has received only the one other recording. Oliveira not only has the strong tone needed for both these works, but he so obviously "gets" them both. Every movement has a goal, and every phrase seems to point to it. These are magisterial readings. The ensemble clarity conductor Williams achieves with his Ukrainians impresses just as much, as does the sensitive interplay between orchestra and soloist. Lees's orchestration is less loaded than Bloch's, but Williams especially stirs me in how he uses percussion to bring crispness to Bloch's rich sounds (the snare drum in the first movement, for example). Everybody seems on the same interpretive page and plays with a focused intent. Right now, this CD stands as the finest stereo account of both the Bloch and the Lees, and it will probably remain so for a while. I also commend the engineering. You hear everything, in perfect balance. Congratulations to Artek.

- Steve Schwartz.


Dr. Barbara Barry’s notes to Bloch’s Violin Concerto make a great deal of its Hebraic roots; but Bloch’s early study with Eugène Ysaÿe, which she does mention, certainly helped shape its solo passages, and the influence of the New Mexico Indian musical world, often cited, may also have played a part. But impassioned, quasi-improvisational declamation, Jewish or not, forms the core of Oliveira’s performance. In the first movement, Oliveira possesses the instrumental mastery to restrain the music’s considerable dramatic ardor from bursting the bounds of his (and his instrument’s) capabilities: this mastery seems to grow and become more assured the more demanding the music becomes. The movement’s frequent cadenza-like passages afford him just so many opportunities to combine strongly violinistic passagework (which he seems to draw effortlessly from his 1729–30 Stretton Guarneri del Gesù) and a rhapsodic sense of freedom; McLaughlin and the Ukrainian Orchestra have matched their soloist’s style of quasi-ritual incantation and offer strong and definitive punctuation. The slow movement grows darker, the soloist engaging by turns in brooding rumination and rapt, soaring dialogue with the orchestra (perhaps most notably with suggestive woodwind sonorities). Oliveira possesses the violinistic authority and the temperament for idiomatic performances of this kind of music, including joyous outbursts like those in the Concerto’s finale (note his success in Joseph Achron’s Violin Concerto, Naxos 559408, 27:3).

Joseph Szigeti and Yehudi Menuhin championed this work, but Walter Simmons, in reviewing Mischa Lefkowitz’s reading of it with the London Philharmonic on Laurel LP 134 in 9:5 (which I reviewed on its re-release on CD, Laurel 834 in 29:6) praised Lefkowitz’s incisiveness and focus in comparison with recorded performances by Roman Totenberg, Yehudi Menuhin, and even Joseph Szigeti (whose performance with Munch both Naxos and Andante have made available), and he preferred the Laurel’s recorded sound. But Artek’s engineers, offering a deeply dimensional image of the orchestral winds and a thrillingly lifelike representation of Oliveira’s rich tonal warmth, provide a level of detail simply not available from the others. And Oliveira’s passionate commitment and the sympathetic realization of the orchestral part, together with the quality of the recorded sound, elevate his reading to a position at the head of the others.

Benjamin Lees, in his booklet notes, mentions the risk of beginning a work with a slow movement, although Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s First Concertos, as well as Walton’s (both the Violin and the Viola Concertos), should have helped pave listeners’ way through whatever difficulties might exist. Lees’s Concerto may be familiar to listeners from performances by Ruggiero Ricci (for example, on One-Eleven 96020), but Oliveira’s presents it in digital sound that sets the solo part against both bright and dark orchestral sonorities. As did Prokofiev’s concertos, Lees’s combines, in its first movement, swirling passagework with biting declamation and soaring lyricism, so plentiful variety and a strong sense of movement perpetually freshen the music’s interest throughout the Andante con moto’s dozen-odd minutes. Lees’s harmonic idiom, considerably more adventurous than Bloch’s, nevertheless grounded in so many familiar tonal and thoroughly violinistic melodic figures, seems more comfortably familiar than more extended analysis might reveal (for example, the seductive woodwind passages opening the second movement). The two concertos also share a dramatic and, at times, almost improvisational sense, by turns rhapsodic, epic, playful, and even hypnotic (a combination perhaps most notable in Lees’s slow movement, Adagio), a tie that binds them not only to each other but to Oliveira as well, who seems thoroughly at home in them. The third movement reveals a more primal rhythmic sense, reminiscent of the combination of slashing figuration and spiky dissonance familiar from Bartók’s works; and Oliveira brings strong forward momentum to this movement that’s as striking as his probing exploration of the first and second. Ricci’s reading, gritty but emotionally resonant too, may generate on the whole even more crackling electricity, but the analog sound, simply not matching the range and clarity of Artek’s, hardly does justice to the orchestral accompaniment.

For those with a strong interest in Bloch’s music, especially for the violin, and for those who collect the work of contemporary American composers, Artek’s release will be obligatory. But it deserves to be strongly recommended to more general collectors and listeners as well.

- Robert Maxham

Ernest Bloch's Violin Concerto is rarely encountered in the concert hall despite its abundance of color, melody, emotional substance, and virtuoso opportunities. Fortunately, there are several fine recordings, starting with the classic Szigeti/Mengelberg performance. The most recent of those, by Zina Schiff, was favorably reviewed by David Hurwitz last year. Now comes another, a superb performance in vibrant, natural sound, by Elmar Oliveira with a Ukrainian orchestra conducted by an American, John McLaughlin Williams.

Bloch's first movement is dramatic, beginning with a fanfare-like invocation in the brass and a long, defiant solo cadenza; this is followed by a slow movement of mystical cast and cantorial inflections, and a finale in which meditative musings give way to affirmation. Oliveira is commanding throughout, his tone ranging freely across Bloch's idiomatic writing, with an edgy dynamism to his playing. Williams and the orchestra are fine, making much of Bloch's colorful orchestration, with its mournful wind cries and brass interjections.

Another neglected concerto shares the disc--Benjamin Lees' Violin Concerto. It's an interesting work with lovely touches: a first-movement cadenza that exploits the full range of the violin, a haunting chorale in the winds that opens the Adagio, and an exuberant final movement. It's a good complement to the Bloch, but even after several hearings little sticks in the memory. The Bloch though, is a masterpiece, and the dilemma for collectors is which version to get.

Szigeti, whether with Mengelberg or in a Music & Arts box, a live performance with Mitropoulos in decent sound, is a must. Those wanting a well-recorded modern version have choices, including the two most recent. Schiff on Naxos is passionate, intense, and lyrical. Her conductor, Jose Serebrier, creates more atmosphere and rhythmic control than Williams does. But Williams and his Ukrainian band are very good and Oliveira more than matches Schiff in passionate intensity. In the upper ranges of the instrument his color and bite pay huge dividends in drama, while, if you're in a nit-picking mood, Schiff's tone sometimes can sound bleached. In many ways the choice lies between a more Dionysian approach (Oliveira) and a more Olympian one (Schiff). I'd give the nod to Oliveira, but wouldn't want to be without the Schiff.

- Dan Davis

Music Web International

"Right from track 1 – the first movement of the Ernest Bloch Concerto – it becomes apparent that these sessions were captured in a really resonant acoustic. It’s a deeply impressive hall conveyed through a warm yet unclouded and analytical sound-image. This suits well the hoarse primitive fanfares that launch the Bloch Concerto in what is a very likeable and strong performance. The conductor tells me that rather than attempt a martial sound in the beginning fanfare he thought he would try to make it sound more like a shofar: “for me it is more a call to worship or ritual than to arms”.

"It had me engaging emotionally with a work which previously I have found only intermittently enthralling. The EMI Menuhin recording never really won me over and at one stage it was the only choice. It left me remembering only those “Ancient of Days” fanfares. Oliveira, John McLaughlin Williams, the Ukrainian orchestra and audio engineers have turned that around. This the best recorded version I have heard and the performance matches its technical excellence. The tenderness of the Bloch never becomes effusive or sentimental. There is austerity too but this asserts itself through economy of emotional expression. It is a fascinating account of a romantic concerto that lacks a really big tune. Its palette is capacious and its sense of fantasy does not tip over into luxuriance. At various times this tonal work might recall the contemporaneous Bax concerto or the much later Bliss. It makes a very satisfying impression. This is emotionally nourishing music played to the hilt by a violinist whose exalted credentials were always clear from his classic Barber (EMI – recently reissued), Achron and Flagello’s Credendum and Violin Concerto.

"Benjamin Lees was born in China of Russian parentage. He held various academic posts at the Juilliard, Peabody, Baltimore, Queen's College, New York and Manhattan School of Music. Ruggiero Ricci recorded his Violin Concerto for Vox (see review) and this is a sure indication of the high regard in which he is held by the musical establishment. Many his works have been recorded and are accessible to the listening public. His symphonies 2, 3 and 5 were issued by Albany in a very fine twin CD set (see review). Naxos issued his moving Symphony No. 4 Memorial Candles in its American Classics series (see review). He was first non-British composer to be awarded the Sir Arnold Bax Society Medal (London 1958).

"The Lees Violin Concerto was written in 1958 while Lees was in France. It was premiered by Henryk Szeryng in Boston in 1963. A traditional work, it inventively deploys a tonal palette and treatment across three movements: two slow and one quick. It is mercurial with chameleon-mood changes and is neither as scarifying nor as hyper-tensile as the Schuman concerto which it occasionally echoes as in the emphatically punched out passage at 2.12 in the slalom swaying finale. There are three movements of which the Andante makes determined and angular play with intriguing rhythmic devices. It sometimes recalls the fragrance and fantasy of the Bax Violin Concerto of 1937. Its finely honed melodies and some of the treatments are tugged between the tropics of Walton and Prokofiev (1). The Adagio is characterised by some pristinely calculated effects: part balm, part threat (6:31). If the finale seems to have more action than substance it is an example of the perennial problem of how to write a conclusion.

"Two 20th century concertos, presented with great commitment, accomplishment and inspiration as well as being well documented. Can we hope for other American violin concertos, I wonder: the concertos by Edward Burlinghame Hill and Frederick Converse should also be worth discovering. I am also fairly sure that there are several works for violin and orchestra by Charles Martin Loeffler."

- Rob Barnett

Two Great American Violin Concertos in Essential Performances
"The violin concertos of Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees are among the greatest such concertos ever written by an American composer. Each is a mid-20th-century romantic gem and, more's the pity, each is almost never played. One could argue that Bloch was not an American composer but the fact is he spent more than half of his life in the US, much of it in Cleveland where he was the founding director of the Cleveland Institute and where the concerto was premiered in 1938 with Joseph Szigeti as soloist. It is a big work -- Bloch's only full-blown three-movement concerto -- whose main thematic kernel - A G E (or permutations thereof) - has tinges of both Native American and Jewish coloring in its various harmonizations. This, of course, ties together characteristics of both the composer, who was Jewish, and his adopted country. What's interesting is that at times one hears these influences simultaneously. The first movement is a huge passionately lyrical 20-minute structure that is in an almost-sonata-allegro form; the composer uses multiple melodic fragments which appear in various guises (as well as reappearing in all three movements) and are manipulated in such a way as to create an unfolding landscape through which the solo violin strides like a general commanding his troops, but who occasionally muses about lost opportunities. In the middle movement, Adagio, the violin cantillates over an accompaniment predominantly of woodwinds and soft brass. There is an unmistakably Jewish cast to the movement, one of rueful meditation. The finale, marked 'Deciso', continues for a time the meditative tone but evolves into a dancing affirmation to what has gone before, a kind of triumph over adversity. The concerto is given an inspiriting performance by Elmar Oliveira with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under conductor John McLaughlin Williams. Oliveira, a player of transcendent abilities and of searching musical intelligence as well as America's only winner of the Gold Medal for violin at the Tchaikovsky International Competition, is one of the few violinists these days who champions this glorious concerto. Thankfully conductor Williams seems to focus his efforts -- on recordings at any rate -- on those woefully neglected American composers one could call Romantics. They make a perfect match for this recording.

"Benjamin Lees (b. 1924, and still composing) is one of our most consistently inspired composers. His Violin Concerto is even less well-known than Bloch's but it is equally substantial and musically satisfying. It was written in 1958 and premiered by Henryk Szeryng and the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf in 1963. A recording, which I have not heard, was later made by violinist Ruggiero Ricci. As far as I know there are no other recordings of the work. Oliveira has championed the work and it is to our great benefit that he has chosen to record it. It opens, unusually, with two slow movements, both songful but with more than a hint of brooding, even menace. In them Lees' spare melodies and harmonies tell of inner struggle, diffidence and yearning. In the third movement, Allegro giusto, any restraint or hesitation felt in the preceding movements melts away and, in the composer's words at the time of its premiere, 'all hell breaks loose.' Cross rhythms and devilishly tricky metrical irregularities give it a celebratory, even febrile air. The orchestral contribution to the whole is extraordinarily complicated and both Williams and the Ukraine orchestra come in for extra praise here. Oliveira plays with such mastery as almost to make the work seem simple but the work is clearly one of incredible virtuosity. Hats off to all concerned -- Oliveira, Williams, the Ukraine orchestra and, most of all, to Benjamin Lees!

"Top recommendation."

- Scott Morrison


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.

- Richard Freed


"Since his unprecedented Gold Medal victory at the Tchaikovsky International Competition, violinist Elmar Oliveira has established himself not only as a powerful and reliable interpreter of the cornerstone works of the violin repertoire, but also as a champion of new works for the instrument. Composed in 1937 and 1958, respectively, neither the Bloch nor Lees Violin Concertos qualify as new compositions per se. However, neither of them have received the attention in concert halls or recording studios that they deserve, and are likely unknown to a wide swath of listeners. One of Oliveira's many talents is taking such works and delivering performances that immediately convince listeners of their inherent musical value. This is an especially daunting task in the Lees Concerto which, as the composer himself states in the liner notes, is risky given its opening with two consecutive slow movements. The intensity and focus of Oliveira's sound is more than sufficient to grab listeners' attention from the very first note. His ample technical abilities never overshadow his successful desire to communicate the musical and emotional qualities of the music to his listeners. On this album, Oliveira is accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, an ensemble which performs their duties sufficiently, but without the same level of intensity and commitment of Oliveira."

- Mike D. Brownell

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Elmar Oliveira is the exceptional soloist on this disc of poignant and powerful violin concertos by Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees. Bloch, the first president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, wrote his concerto in 1939 for the Cleveland Orchestra and violinist Joseph Szigeti. It is a rich fabric of moody thematic material, with violinist as forceful protagonist. Lees' 1958 concerto abounds in poetic and impassioned material. John McLaughlin Williams leads the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in fine, elastic performances. Grade: A"

- Donald Rosenberg

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