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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
String Quartets 1-4
CD 1

String Quartets No. 1 (1916) [58:23]
String Quartet No. 3 (movements I-III) (1952) [15:30]
CD 2

String Quartet No. 3 (movement IV) (1952) [8:17]
String Quartets 2 (1945) [34:21] and 4 (1953) [29:40]
Griller String Quartet (Sidney Griller (violin 1); Jack O’Brien (violin 2); Philip Burton (viola); Colin Hampton (cello)).
Rec. Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, 28-30 June; 2, 5-6, 9, 19-20 July 1954
1: Decca LXT 5071; 2: Decca LXT 5072; 3 and 4: Decca LXT 5073; ADD MONO
DECCA 475 607-1 5 DC2 [74:12 + 72:49]


The Griller String Quartet was a celebrity ensemble from the 1930s until its disbandment in 1963. Their membership remained constant until the departure of O’Brien and Burton in 1960. Various replacements were tried out but by then the wind had gone from the Griller sails. Hearing this most vividly concentrated music-making one can easily understand why they were so well rated.

Their repertoire was wide-ranging taking in the classics but also extending to contemporary works: Bliss String Quartet No. 2 (also recorded by Decca and issued on LX 3038), Edric Cundell’s quartet; Howard Ferguson’s Octet; Rawsthorne’s Second Quartet and Wordsworth’s Clarinet Quintet. They were also partial to Bax and recorded the Bax First Quartet and the Nonet. Bax dedicated his Third String Quartet to them.

The Grillers first came into contact with Bloch in the 1930s as a result of a BBC invitation to broadcast the massive first quartet. They played at the inception of the Bloch Society at the Aeolian Hall on 19 December 1937. They were instrumental in the promotion of the Bloch quartets and performed all five of them. Nor did they restrict themselves to the quartets. They also regularly performed the two Piano Quintets.

In June 1947 for Decca the Grillers made the premiere recording of the Bloch String Quartet No. 2. This was issued on 78s as AK1758/62 reissued on Dutton CDBP 9713. In 1953 this was followed by a recording of the Third Quartet which was dedicated to the Grillers. However the present recordings are from a slightly later time and were made in 1954 now appearing on CD a full half century after those recording sessions. These recordings have not been available since their first LP release in 1955 and 1956.

How does this set (in one of those snazzy single width cases) hold up against the competition? First please note that these are mono recordings although such is the vigour and reflection of the interpretations you sometimes sense directional information. The tricks the mind plays! Second it offers only the first four quartets. The Grillers did not record the Fifth although they did premiere the work as they also did numbers 3 and 4. Third these are recordings made fifty years ago. And yet they sound well with Decca’s engineers extracting a measure of ampleness alongside the treble emphasis. By all expectations these recordings should have a ferocious treble. The truth is that they sound very good without being miraculously refined. Of course there are occasional blemishes’: the low level rumble at the end of the first movement of the First Quartet. I wonder if these recordings sounded as good on those old LXTs? It would be interesting to know from listeners who have or can recall the original black discs. Fourth it is two CDs at midprice. Fifth it is well documented. Sixth the performances carry a turbulent cargo of historical significance.

Let’s start with the hour long First Quartet. It dates from 1916. This was the same year as Schelomo and the Israel Symphony. It is a stronger work than both. Indeed there is an uncommon serenity here alongside a voluptuous rhapsodising typical of Hiver-Printemps (1905), Poèmes d'Automne (1906) and Deux Psaumes (1912-14) (all three works on Timpani 1C1052). These show a delicacy without even a glimmer of the effete. This is music of diaphanous imagination mixed with a searching sensibility and Bartókian muscle. It is said that this work reflects Bloch’s personal crisis (stranded in the USA) and the crisis of the Great War. This I can well believe. Of Bloch’s major works this stands very tall indeed and this version (I have not heard the Portlands on Arabesque) can be recommended with absolute confidence. If you hanker after an emotionally ambitious epic scale quartet and enjoy Bartók and Shostakovich yet can accept a more melodic hand then look no further. If you are at all allergic to Bloch’s ‘wail’ and perhaps fear the excessive ethnic element that soaks Schelomo, Voice in the Wilderness and Israel Symphony, be reassured. It is almost completely absent from this expressionist romantic work which stands loftily apart from the other quartets.

The Third Quartet shouts with an eager aggression - the third and fourth movements blazes with such moments. The performance is distinguished by a thuddingly Bartókian attack and by what sounds like a Hungarian folk element. In the finale the Grillers dig deep with gut and horsehair and rosin. The 1950s engineers allowed the resonance of the final note to decay without cut-off. The Second was dedicated to Alex Cohen, leader of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Cohen it was who put the Grillers in touch with Bloch. The work launches with an emotionally bleached-out lament (for the war dead?). The final movement is thunderous with brusque energy and incorporates a turbulent melos - part Bach (Double Concerto) and part Mozart (K364). With one moment where repetition leaves the concentration sagging this is impressive work. The quartet ends amid an evocation of hard-won peace

It is interesting to note that when the three LXTs were first issued the appearance of the Fourth quartet in the shops took place only three years after the premiere of that quartet. This work, which the Grillers premiered in London in January 1954, is in the accustomed four movements. Once again the action alternates between burly attacking activity and peaceful sounds suggestive of contentment. The lovely rocking andante has a folksy feel. Once again there is no shred of the Schelomo or Hassidic strand. Half lights and whispered confidences are suggested. However the aggressive Presto returns with the suggestion of Schoenberg-like dissonance amid the initial pizzicato. This dissonance is also encountered at the start of the first movement. The Grillers tear into this work with a will and their collective unanimity and sheer punch is almost forbidding. I wonder if any recordings exist of the Grillers as the lead four-some in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro?

This set has the virtues of flamboyant authenticity and unattentuatedly virile playing. The Laurel set is no longer available so if you must have a stereo version the only game in town is the Portland on Arabesque. That's a fine series though it lacks the utter intensity to be found with the Grillers. On the other hand recording quality is superior, it’s stereo and of course you also get the Fifth Quartet. If you can live without the Fifth or are prepared to buy the Fifth separately then the Grillers are first choice. The 'antiquity' of the sound is by no means what you might fear.

It seems perverse to recommend this Decca set as a library choice. Its age and mono signal tell against it but in fact the age issue can be largely discarded. Mono? Well, yes, but I have heard stereo recordings with less spatial sense than this.

The two page liner notes are by the redoubtable Tully Potter who always delivers a well written essay packed with useful cross-references. Mr Potter’s collection is also the source of two photographs: one of them being of the Grillers standing with Bloch at the Santa Barbara Mission in 1947.

Gutsy recordings of music of opulent complexity ranging from the impressionist-romantic music of the 1916 First Quartet to the sparer yet still mesmerisingly tense music of Quartets 2-4. How strange that the Fifth Quartet eluded the Grillers. It was completed a year after the Griller’s recording sessions and four years later Bloch was dead. A year after Bloch’s death two key players left the Quartet. With them went the stormy chemistry that lifted the Griller Quartet out of the commonplace. Perhaps it was just too late to finish the cycle?

Rob Barnett

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