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ClassicsOnline Home » BLOCH, T.: Missa Cantate / Sancta Maria / Cold Song / Christ Hall Blues (Waschinski, T. Bloch, Coulter, Paderewski Philharmonic, Quattrocchi)
Rare-instrument specialist Thomas Bloch is equally at home performing on the soundtrack to Milos Forman’s Amadeus, with rock group Radiohead, or at La Scala, Milan or the Salzburg Festival. He has given more than 3000 concerts and made more than 100 recordings, including several for Naxos (Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony; Music for ondes Martenot; Music for Glass Harmonica; Varèse’s Écuatorial). A composer as well as a performer, he was inspired to write for the rare male soprano voice having appeared on stage with such vocalists on many occasions. Ranging from the warmth and poignancy of the orchestral Missa Cantate to the icy tones of Cold Song, his works have an immediate emotional impact on their audiences.
By Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide
Thomas Bloch (b. 1962)
Missa Cantate • Sancta Maria • Cold Song • Christ Hall Blues • Christ Hall Postlude
Thomas Bloch, born in Colmar, France, in 1962, was seven years old when he wrote his first pieces of music, and when he began to take an interest in contemporary composers such as Penderecki, Xenakis, Boulez, Maxwell Davies and Messiaen. He also discovered the ondes Martenot at this point, one of the main instruments in which he was later to specialise as a concert performer. At twelve he became fascinated by the music of John Cage, with whom he would later collaborate, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Debussy (the Études), Schumann (the chamber works), Fauré, Satie and Bartók. By seventeen he had developed an interest in both classical and rock music and was continuing to explore a variety of contemporary soundworlds (Otte, La Monte Young, Riley, Glass and Kagel). He then studied at the University of Strasbourg and the Conservatories of Colmar, Strasbourg and Paris (ondes Martenot, piano, chamber music, acoustics, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and so on). He also attended summer courses in Darmstadt, where he had the opportunity to work with figures such as Hespos, Feldman, Ferneyhough, Radulescu and Tom Johnson, another composer with whom he later collaborated.
At the end of his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, Bloch launched his performing career, as a specialist in rare instruments (the ondes Martenot, glass harmonica and cristal Baschet). He is now a much sought-after musician in many different fields: classical music, opera, contemporary and improvisatory music, song, jazz, rock, theatre, cinema and ballet, among others. While most of his life is spent in concert halls and recording studios, he also devotes as much time as possible to composing, and has written music for a variety of different instrumental forces and to accompany stage, dance and cinematic performances.
Bloch’s compositional direction developed as he gained experience as a performer of both art and popular music, and as he came into contact on a regular basis with a wide range of audiences. Little by little, he began favouring auditory pleasure over the purely theoretical and conceptual in his music, accepting the fact of having succumbed to the temptations offered by our diverse musical heritage.
His choice of a male soprano for his vocal works was inspired by a simple idea, namely combining the rare “angelic voice” formerly associated with castrati with the equally rare glass harmonica, dubbed the “angelic organ” by Paganini. His meeting with singer Patrick Husson in 1989 set the seal on the matter.
The Missa Cantate for male soprano and symphony orchestra resembles its composer in nature: calm, serene and informed by Bloch’s many collaborations as a performer (he moves quite happily from Mozart to John Cage and on again to Radiohead). Its aim is to strike an emotional chord with as many listeners as possible. There is an immediacy to Bloch’s eloquent musical vocabulary, while his idiom remains eminently personal.
The Mass was written between April and November 1999 and completed during a residency at the Château de La Napoule, an artistic oasis on the shores of the Mediterranean near Cannes, whose magical atmosphere is clearly reflected in this work. Having originally written the piece for male soprano and piano, Bloch called on Hubert Bougis, a much sought-after orchestrator in the film world, to create the orchestral version. The Missa Cantate is dedicated to Christine Bloch, to the memories of musicologist Marc Honegger and Hubert Bougis, and to Annick Fiaschi Dubois, the musicologist who was awarded a “Prix de Rome” and who suggested to Bloch that he write the work.
The Introit immediately induces a meditative state that invites one to listen to the work in its entirety. A certain familiarity with Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 is discernible, but the movement also calls on the structure of Baroque opera, a repertoire beloved of male sopranos, by alternating recitative and aria to frame a brief peak of sound. The Kyrie, linked directly to the Gloria, is less stable harmonically, a mixture of contained tumult and calm which ends on an unexpected chord. The stability of the Alleluia contrasts sharply with the previous movement. The vocal line here begins on a single note, the A above middle C, before gradually rising into the high notes in a falsely repetitive melody. A six-bar passage repeated in a loop, its orchestration being different in each of the nine repeats, is used to lead to a joyful development which is brought to an end by a short and more restrained recapitulation. After an introduction, an excerpt from which will later act as a bridge, the Credo presents three successive episodes which are played several times before the appearance of an entirely new coda. The movement’s dense text is divided between recitative and lyrical sections. Then, in the Offertory, a clear melodic line unfolds above a sober orchestral accompaniment. This apparent simplicity disguises the underlying serial harmonies, a procedure enabling the composer to stamp a certain dynamism on the music, an impression of inexorable progression despite the rhythmic stasis. In the Sanctus, which leads into the Benedictus without a break, we hear a nod to a style of film music one might qualify as post-Romantic or even a cliché. This is borne out by its orchestration, two-part rhythm, memorable melody and verse/refrain form, and underlines Thomas Bloch’s interest in writing music to accompany visual images. The Anamnesis is a kind of flowing interlude, recalling the Ouysse, a magnificent and serene river that carves out a deep, green furrow through a limestone plateau not far from Rocamadour, France, a place that was particularly meaningful for Francis Poulenc. Here again we hear those serial harmonies, except in the movement’s central section. The almost rigid stasis of the Pater Noster, by contrast, is softened only occasionally by a few harmonic changes. The unchanging, repetitive accompaniment, like a solemn procession, leaves the voice free to follow its own path and to explore its full register. The Agnus Dei externalises and dismisses some of the tension caused by the previous movement’s inward-looking character and seems all the more supple for its extensive deployment of chromatic movements. It acts as another interlude, this time preparing listeners for the closing Ite Missa Est. Now the sometimes familiar and reassuring and sometimes harrowing ticking of a clock and of time passing are evoked. The syllables become more widely spaced. Reaching the lower register, the voice goes back to the earth and falls silent. As a symbolic reminder, seven final bars conclude the work.
Sancta Maria (1998) for four male soprano voices, viola, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, keyboards and crystal bells, has been the recipient of a number of awards and has been used in several documentary and film soundtracks. Its première was given by male soprano Fabrice di Falco and Thomas Bloch himself. The work requires various vocal techniques as the singer also has to access a lower, almost baritone register, and to create a range of effects. Again following the Baroque tradition, the work opens with a recitative; this is followed by an aria in which multiple lines and effects are used to weave a fabric of sounds that ends with a seemingly weightless vocal canon.
Cold Song (2009) for seven male soprano voices, cristal Baschet and waterphone, attempts to trigger an almost physical response, a sense of iciness. The voice is treated as an instrument and its timbre is sometimes very slightly modified electronically in order to add more colours to the sound fabric and to the effects (harmonic, percussive, and so on) created by the cristal Baschet and occasionally enhanced by the waterphone.
The Baroque opera structure used in the Sancta Maria is employed once more in Christ Hall Blues (1990, revised 2005), for male soprano, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, ondes Martenot, musical saw and crystal bells. Its two parts, Recitative and Aria, come from a work of around 25 minutes, Christ Hall (Hommage à Marc Chagall), which was commissioned by Alain Pacquier and the Sarrebourg Festival in 1990. Originally it was composed for a single voice (instead of the twelve in the current version)—that of Patrick Husson—accompanied by six glass harmonicas (only two remain, playing the original lines and more besides), a single ondes Martenot (there are two here) and synthesizers, whose parts are here entrusted to the cristal Baschet. At the première the work was performed in front of the largest stained-glass window Chagall ever created, in the Chapelle des Cordeliers in Sarrebourg, France. The first part of the work is melodic, accompanied for the most part by the cristal Baschet and prolonged by a short instrumental transition. In the second part, introduced by the musical saw and a sound of bells that continues to the end of the piece, the melodic line and a succession of simple harmonies are set out in an eight-bar section repeated in a loop, as in a song without a chorus. The calm and regular tempo echoes the natural movement of breathing. There are three layers of meaning in the title: in French, the pronunciation of Christ Hall is the same as that of “cristal” (“glass” or “crystal”), the English words reflect the location of the première, while in German, “Hall” means “reverberation”.
Christ Hall Postlude (2008) picks up the elements of the interlude that separates the recitative and the aria in Christ Hall Blues. This short piece draws largely on silence, enabling listeners to emerge gradually from the listening experience provided by this album.
J.J.S. von Holt Sombach
English translation by Susannah Howe
A male soprano is an adult with the vocal range of a female soprano. The term is used for those whose register is higher than that of either the haute-contre or the countertenor voice. There are probably only a dozen or so in the world. Such voices, often qualified as “angelic”, recall the castrati of the Baroque era, but of course we have no recordings with which to gauge the vocal range or quality of the latter, only surviving documentary evidence (i.e. scores, contemporary reviews or books, and so on). In any case, we know that there were “surgically intact” male sopranos as well as castrati performing at that time.
In 1743, Irishman Richard Puckeridge came up with the idea of making music by stroking, with moistened fingertips, the rims of stemmed glasses placed on a table. In 1761, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) improved on the principle: his version of the “glass harmonica” consists of 37 bowls (3 octaves) made of crystal, glass or, these days, quartz, their pitch determined by their diameter. All 37 bowls are then fitted onto a single horizontal rod which runs through their centres. This rod is rotated with a crank and the player again strokes the rims with moistened fingers. The glass harmonica was banned in some places by the police in around 1835—one of the reasons given for this was that it drove its players mad (probably owing to lead poisoning). Gerhard Finkenbeiner has been building new instruments since 1982. Around 400 works were written expressly for the glass harmonica, by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, C.P.E. Bach, Donizetti and Richard Strauss, among others.
Maurice Martenot (1898-1980) found the principle of the ondes Martenot while he was working as an army radio operator during the First World War. A talented cellist, he was fascinated more by the musical and expressive potential offered by electricity than by research of new sounds as such. Having begun work in 1919, he presented his new instrument, then called “ondes musicales” (musical waves) at the Paris Opéra in 1928. It is now considered to be one of the world’s first electronic instruments. The ondes Martenot is monophonic and has three diffuseurs, or loudspeakers (“principal”, “resonance” and “metallic”) which produce specific sound effects; a moving keyboard enabling great virtuosity, vibrato and microtones; a ribbon whose sound effect is close to that of a string instrument or a voice; and a drawer containing a number of switches which are “played” by the left hand and used to control dynamics, timbre and the loudspeakers. 370 instruments were built in the period up to 1988 and there is a repertoire of around 1000 works. After a two-decade break, the first new instrument was built in 2010.
Used in laboratories in the eighteenth century, the principle of using a glass bow and a rod set into a heavy block of metal was taken up again in 1952 by Bernard and François Baschet. The cristal Baschet is made up of chromatically tuned glass rods, which are “bowed” with moistened fingers, and a metal structure than can be bent or struck. Its range varies from 3 1/2 to 6 octaves, depending on the model. The sound is amplified by fibreglass cones and a flame-shaped metal sheet. The cristal Baschet is an entirely acoustic relative of the electronic instrument family.
Invented by Richard Waters between 1967 and 1970, the waterphone has since evolved into a whole family of instruments. The player sits with the instrument on his or her lap, holding it by its neck. The waterphone consists of a circular steel resonator around the rim of which are set a series of metal rods of different lengths. The resonator contains a small amount of water, and the player either rubs with a bow or strikes the rods, thereby moving the water and creating different effects and pitches. The instrument’s sounds have sometimes been compared to a whalesong. Its origins lie in the eighteenth-century nail violin and in Tibetan bowls.
It is an ordinary handsaw, as the one used for cutting wood: the idea of striking it or rubbing it with a bow to make it vibrate dates back to the nineteenth century and is attributed to French woodcutters. It became popular among circus and music-hall performers around the turn of the twentieth century. Its range can cover three octaves or more and composers such as Honegger, Sauguet and Crumb have written music for it. Perhaps its most celebrated player was Marlene Dietrich.
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BLOCH, T.: Missa Cantate / Sancta Maria / Cold Son...