Despite the appeal and popularity of Bloch’s Schelomo, his three solo cello suites have not been widely recorded. They were written late in the composer’s life, in 1956-57, after he had retired from teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and were inspired by the Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova. Unfortunately, Nelsova, who worked closely with Bloch in the years after the end of the Second World War, left no recording of the pieces. The German cellist Peter Bruns recorded them in 1997, on a disc that also included key cello works from earlier in the composer’s career, including From Jewish Life and Baal Shem, when Bloch was self-consciously interested in discovering within himself what it meant to be a Jewish composer.
The late-in-life solo suites are very different in tone from those earlier works, more meditative and introspective, and while listeners will easily detect similar melodic contours to the music Bloch was writing in his Jewish Cycle works, these suites lack the long, ardent lines of Schelomo, though none of its expressive power. Cellist Natalie Clein keeps the expressive range within autumnal parameters: melancholy, lightly fretful, inward and dignified. Whereas Bruns is more forcefully rhetorical and demonstrative, Clein plays intimately, as if for herself alone. But there is nothing hermetic about her approach. Gently, insistently, quietly, she draws the listener into Bloch’s music and the results are thoroughly absorbing.
Rather than pair these relatively short works—made up of four or five movements each, most lasting only a few minutes—with other works by Bloch, Clein couples them with Dallapiccola’s 1945 Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio, thorny but powerful, written at the same time as he was working on his tremendously bleak opera Il prigioniero, and Ligeti’s 1948-53 two-movement Sonata for solo cello. Clein is every bit as commanding in the formidably difficult Dallapiccola as she is retiring in the Bloch, and her performance of the Adagio theme in the Ligeti is four minutes of pure, concentrated beauty. This lovely disc reveals the cello as a kind of private sketch pad, or journal, capturing big emotions on a small scale, with a poetic concentration in sharp contrast to the larger, more furious musical gestures of the post-war moment. (Gramophone)