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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
The Complete String Quartets Vol. 2
String Quartet No. 2 (1947) [32.40]
String Quartet No. 3 (1953) [23.20]
Portland String Quartet (Stephen Kecskemethy, violin; Ronald Lantz, violin; Julia Adams, viola; Paul Ross, cello)
rec. CBS Studios, Studio B, New York, 13-15 Oct 1982; Congregation Emanuel of Westchester, Rye, New York, 17-19 Jan, 9-10 May 1983. DDD

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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
The Complete String Quartets Vol. 3
String Quartet No. 4 (1954) [28.42]
String Quartet No. 5 (1956) [32.13]
Portland String Quartet (Stephen Kecskemethy, violin; Ronald Lantz, violin; Julia Adams, viola; Paul Ross, cello)
rec. CBS Studios, Studio B, New York, 13-15 Oct 1982; Congregation Emanuel of Westchester, Rye, New York, 17-19 Jan, 9-10 May 1983. DDD

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Arabesque's survey of Bloch's chamber music is not to be ignored. The company's attention to every detail is impressive indeed. For example in all six cases the notes are by Suzanne Bloch, the composer's daughter and dedicatee of the Fifth Quartet.

If Arabesque's Bloch items have faded into the crowd it is because they have been in the catalogue for so long. Their strengths remain undimmed and there has been no cause for critics to winge as Arabesque have kept them in their live list.

The Bloch discs from Arabesque are catalogued here:-
Music for violin and piano: Vol. 1 (Weilerstein Duo) Z6605
Music for violin and piano: Vol. 2 (Weilerstein Duo) Z6606
String Quartet No. 1 Portland Quartet Z6543
String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 Portland Quartet Z6626
String Quartets Nos. 4 and 5 Portland Quartet Z6627
Piano Quintets No. 1 and 2, Paul Posnak (piano) Portland Quartet Z6618

Sadly Volume 1 of the Bloch quartets series was not available to me at the time of writing. Perhaps later.

Suzanne Bloch in her liner notes mentions that the Second Quartet was completed when the composer was sixty and emerging from a period of crushing depression. The Portland present the work without flinching or turning away from its sometimes vicious energy or from its morose expressionistic tendencies which are more than apparent in the first movement. The music leads us through a darkling plain, with plaintive cries and supplications. The overcast skies recall Barber's quartet writing in Dover Beach. The start of the Andante third movement recalls the work which Bloch was studying at the time - Beethoven's Eroica. The allegro molto flies along with a guttural energetic signature which is captured with honest fidelity by the Portland and the Arabesque team. Bloch finds peace of a sort in the work's closing moments.

After too short a pause the disc pitches into the start of the Third Quartet. This is more positive-minded music than the Second Quartet but couched in a sometimes expressionistic style. The music surges and pierces the emotional fabric with a keenly-stropped poignancy. The second movement, an adagio non troppo, is of extraordinary concentration and elusively moonlit mood. The Adagio has some bibulous Hungarian touches. It is given with unstinting passion and almost physical impact by the Portland Quartet. The composer cannot resist some tough fugal writing at 5.00 onwards. I am not sure it that works fully well but a fluttered flourish of a peroration does the trick very nicely. Triumphantly performed by the Portlanders. It was written for the Grillers who recorded it. That recording has been reissued by Dutton.

The second CD reviewed here has the last two quartets. They were written by a composer respectively five years and three years from death. The Fourth is in the conventional four movements. The music, when at speed, seems driven by desperation. More clam and balm comes in the andante - one often finds extraordinary artistic achievement in Bloch's adagios and andantes. There is a technical background 'rustle' at the start of the finale - the first time I noticed this - rather like the sound of a dirty LP. It does not detract from the music which is again morose and becomes increasingly dodecaphonic without going the whole hog. For the last three minutes of this nine minute movement the music emerges into a tonal glow - bathed in the warmth of the late sun.

The Fifth and last quartet is in two movements. Again the start of the Fifth comes after far too short a pause - perhaps a second - after the final note of the end of the Fourth quartet has finished resonating. The music is again haunted, at times desperate but not a stranger to joy (I 4.11). There is not the same 12-tone insurgency you encounter in the Fourth but this remains tough-spirited music. Stereo spread is agreeably wide but without the sense of a racked unnatural extrusion of the soundstage. The best example of the spread can be heard at the start of the last movement of the Fifth. There is some really grace-filled music in this movement as if in memory of glamorous ballrooms at one moment and desperate deeds at another.

These quartets are jewelled philosopher's stones inevitably reflecting Bloch’s many years in intimate contact with Bach's fugues and the Beethoven quartets. These were works whose inner workings he laid bare for year after year of students at University of California Berkeley from the 1940s onwards.

Certainly adherents of the Bartók six should get these discs. These are serious quartets, not a trace of the serenade or divertimento here. Currently Arabesque offer the only complete series but any aspirants will face very tough competition with the Portland who readings strike me as authoritative.

Bloch has been receiving some long postponed attention these last five years. At long last his turn-of-the-century opera Macbeth has been recorded by Actes-Sud and by Capriccio. Bis have several Bloch discs. Recently Capriccio have brought out a fresh recording of the Violin Concerto. Four years ago the Timpani recording conducted by David Shallon revived works long out in the cold. In all this activity let's not forget these indispensable Bloch recordings.

Rob Barnett

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