Ernest Bloch's Concerti Grossi are in my opinion two of his finest works. They are both small masterpieces, and the Concerto Grosso No. 1 for String Orchestra and Piano Obliggato is I think the greatest example of a 20th century take on the concerto grosso. The Concerto Grosso No. 2 for Strings (divided strings) too is just gorgeous and indeed more strongly Neo-Baroque than No. 1, however in the Concerto Grosso No. 1, the fourth and final movement is one of the most impressive five-part fugues *anywhere* in music. J.S. Bach would have been nothing if not proud. The Concerto Grosso No. 1 is an extremely inspired work and rather uplifting and life-affirming. Beauty and intensity in the perfect marriage.
*As the Concertino and "Four Episodes" are lesser known I'm here adding longer (mostly quoted) info on them:
Commissioned by the Juilliard School, the Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Strings is in three movements, of great contrast. Bloch's daughter Suzanne describes the Concertino perfectly in her book "Ernest Bloch: Creative Spirit": The opening movements is full of what could be called "affectionate freshness", an easy going, flowing melodic and tonal Allegro Commodo.
The Andante is modal and contrapuntal, with its two motives intertwined between the two soli and the orchestra in various ways, in Passacaglia style where Bloch's craftmanship is evident. The last movement is again in contrast, as Fugue based on a subject he had written years before but discarded as unsatisfactory. When he took it up later, realizing why he couldn't find a good counter-subject, he sent me several pages of his studies in transforming the theme rhythmically so it would work with logic and balance. His long work on Renaissance counterpoint, on Bach fugues and on Beethoven's sketches had served him well! However academic his studies had been, in this fugue after a short stretto, (for no logical reason whatsoever) suddenly the theme appeared to him in the form of a Polka into which he went whole-heartedly with gusto ending the work rather suddenly.
Four Episodes is scored for eleven instruments, string quintet, wind quintet and piano, and the work is fascinating also in its orchestration. Each of the four short, individual and virtuosic episodes includes the sounds of solo writing, chamber music and the richness of a symphony orchestra.
The first episode, Humoresque macabre, reminds us of the Jewish period in Bloch's music, with its sense of drama, rhythmical excitement, sadness, mystery, grotesquerie and enthusiasm. Although Bloch had probably in his mind a certain narrative programme while composing, it is a piece in which each listener may imagine something different.
In the second episode, Obsession, the same five-bar tune is repeated, with 24 continuous variations. Like the bass of a passacaglia, or Ravel's orchestration of his Bolero, the theme starts with one instrument, the piano, and in each variation a new instrument is added. A short strict Bach-style fugue appears at the centre of this movement. The general humour and spirit of the episode is similar to that found in music by Jacques Ibert and Darius Milhaud, who belonged to the same circle and were subject to the same influences of the period. The obsessive rhythmical melody long haunts the memory.
In Pastoral the peaceful flow of nature starts with the shepherd pipe. Then a dialogue between the various colors and nuances of nature is played out by the solo instruments, which evoke the human sensibility for the mysterious creation of nature, and nostalgia for love.
Bloch was fascinated by the Chinese Theatre. He admired the background, the décor, the heroic contrasts, the smells and the magic that take you to distant worlds. Once again we encounter earlier images, such as the Jewish figure that appeared in the first episode. Bloch's prophetic intuition succeeded in attaining a deep understanding of Israeli and Chinese music, without even visiting both those lands. Enjoy!
1-Concerto Grosso No.1, for string orchestra & piano: 1. Prelude
2-Concerto Grosso No.1, for string orchestra & piano: 2. Dirge
3-Concerto Grosso No.1, for string orchestra & piano: 3. Pastorale and rustic dances
4-Concerto Grosso No.1, for string orchestra & piano: 4. Fugue
5-Concertino, for flute, viola & strings: 1. Allegro comodo
6-Concertino, for flute, viola & strings: 2. Andante
7-Concertino, for flute, viola & strings: 3. Allegro
8-Episodes (4), for chamber orchestra: 1. Humoresque macabre
9-Episodes (4), for chamber orchestra: 2. Obsession
10-Episodes (4), for chamber orchestra: 3. Calm
11-Episodes (4), for chamber orchestra: 4. Chinese
12-Concerto Grosso No.2, for string quartet & strings: 1. Maestoso - Allegro - Maestoso
13-Concerto Grosso No.2, for string quartet & strings: 2. Andante
14-Concerto Grosso No.2, for string quartet & strings: 3. Allegro
15-Concerto Grosso No.2, for string quartet & strings: 4. Tranquillo - Animato