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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
String Quartet No. 2 (1945)
Prelude (1925)
Night from “In the Mountains” (1925)
Two Pieces for String Quartet (1938 and 1950)
Pro Arte Quartet
Recorded in Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison, (1988)
LAUREL LR-826CD [53.41]

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www.laurelrecords.com

Bloch’s Second Quartet is one of the masterpieces of the repertoire. Begun in 1940 it wasn’t finished until 1945, the composer himself dubbing it “dry, not easy to listen to … and I doubt it will be liked.” He was wrong in almost all respects and was apparently stunned when Ernest Newman reviewed it and compared it explicitly to the last quartets of Beethoven. Whatever its status a recording soon resulted – played by the Griller Quartet on Decca AK1758/62 and which is happily once more in the catalogue on Dutton CDBP 9713, followed not long after by the Stuyvesant Quartet on the little known International Album label. The Pro Arte Quartet play with immense concentration and tactile feeling for the music and theirs is a most impressive traversal, recorded I believe – though it’s not obvious from the documentation – in 1988. Technically impressive and tonally eloquent they take the music generally slightly slower than that 1947 premiere disc by the Griller Quartet but the only serious divergence is in the long finale in which the Grillers drive more obviously passionately through the fugato section.

The Quartet opens with the violin’s desolate line joined by the other players and an emergent second theme in the lower strings – all conveying an extraordinary sense, well conveyed here, of serenely dislocated compression. The Presto second movement is a scherzo in all but name; it has a rather martial air to it, decisively accented with episodes of exposed single lines until at 1.54 a ghostly and dramatically withdrawn episode deepens and sharpens the profile. Fugal development and thematic development take over before breaking down once more to a solo cello line. The movement ends in uncertain strength, as if almost in defiance of itself. The oscillatory Adagio with its probing violin line possesses both intimacy and direction but the music remains as if in some kind of stasis. Whilst it lightens in texture as it develops it never loses a sense of puzzled introspection and polyphonous abstraction, both excellently realised here. The finale opens with a show of unison determination before the Passacaglia and Fugue sweep all before them. A sense of grimness is tempered by surety, passionate momentum generated over pedal points with the first violin soaring to the heights and all four instruments reflecting on earlier thematic material. The Quartet ends reflectively with a reminiscence of the opening theme, one that both reflects on the immensity of the ensuing journey and that grants the music a measure at least of resolve and surety.

Bloch wrote Prelude (1925) after resigning from the Cleveland Institute of Music. This was its first ever recording.  With its hints of modality and melancholy, its quasi-baroque moments and density it is a miniature of imposing construction, given its considerable brevity – about four and a half minutes. It has an intensity and a return to its initial gravity that I find immensely attractive (hard to programme in the concert hall, I suppose, but not impossible. This is a piece that should be heard much more often than it is. Night also dates from 1925 and was inspired by the film documentary Nanook of the North. Oscillatory, once more imbued with a noble gravity, this is an attractive work but not the equal of the Prelude (it served as the fill-up for the Grillers 1947 Quartet recording). The Two Pieces for String Quartet use material from 1938 and 1950. The first is an Andante moderato that opens quite abruptly before relaxing briefly – followed by a motoric eruption accompanied by much fractious winding down as if the material is incapable of sustaining such a level of emotive heat. The second piece, an Allegro molto, is strongly galvanic with determined propulsion.

Bloch’s elaborate schema, his veiled emotionalism and his architectural complexity are excellently served by the Pro Arte Quartet. As well as notes on the music, there is a time-line history of the quartet dating back to the Brussels formation of 1912 (Onnou, Halleux, Prevost, Lemaire). A distinguished release on all counts.

Jonathan Woolf

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