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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
String Quartet No. 1 Quatuor à Cordes (1916) [56:20]
Piano Quintet No. 2 (1957) [20:28]
Pro Arte Quartet: (Norman Paulu, Martha Blum (violins); Richard Blum (viola); Parry Karp (cello)); Howard Karp (piano)
rec. Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin. First Quartet: 18-21 December 1980 released on LP (LR-120) 1982. ADD
LAUREL LR-820 CD [76:48]

 


It’s interesting that the major effort of writing such a huge 1st quartet meant that Bloch may well have felt that he had nothing further to say on the subject. The 2nd Quartet dates from 1945, some twenty-nine years later. Again, it’s a war-time piece, but after that the remaining quartets were composed quickly with his last, the fifth, from 1953. Laurel’s booklet notes by John Erling state that this 1st quartet is probably Bloch’s finest. I have not heard the others but it would difficult to imagine that they are finer. On my two or so playings, I can say immediately that this is surely a major work and one that is dramatically gripping. I also found the Quintet a fine work too; if anything even more gripping. It’s worth remembering that as he was writing it Bloch was becoming increasingly aware of his own mortality due to illness. Yet the work is full of passion and energy.

But what do you expect when you listen to Bloch’s music? Perhaps you have heard the wonderful ‘Israel Symphony’ of 1914 or ‘Schelomo’ the Hebraic Rhapsody for cello and orchestra of 1923 or the even earlier and rather romantic ‘Three Jewish Poems’ of 1913. Then there’s ‘From Jewish life’ for cello and piano of 1925. These are hardly standard repertoire works and are rarely played in the UK. They are in fact just a few of Bloch’s more nationalistic utterances. He had another side and we can hear that in these two chamber works.

I found myself wondering, and perhaps this is not too fanciful, if Bloch was a little like Elgar. His public face being the above pieces with ‘nationalist’ Jewish titles. Then there was the private face: the chamber works including the violin sonatas, the Concertino for viola, flute and strings, the more popular, neo-classical concerto grossos for strings and piano, and many other pieces. I leave to you to consider this point further, but let’s look at these two works.

In the case of the 1st Quartet Bloch admitted that it was an openly autobiographical work written at “at a period of a double crises, the crises of the world and a crisis in my own life - the expatriation from my native country, Switzerland”. It opens with an expansive movement of over thirteen minutes duration .Before long you understand what the booklet annotator John Erling means when he writes that the music “is devised to magnify the sound of the four instruments”. You can imagine it would work well for a string orchestra. And although he specifically mentions this in relation to the ferocious second movement (marked allegro frenetico) I do think that it applies also to the passionate sections of this opening movement. This is a classical movement in form, however Bloch himself is quoted as saying “it may appear very free at times, melodically, modally, rhythmically, but it’s certainly neither rhapsodical, nor free”.  The second movement is angry and rhythmically challenging and fits in with the comments of Bloch quoted above. The 3rd movement in conciliatory. It is the same length as the first and certainly has its ‘angst’ especially in the central climax, but it is marked ‘Pastoral’ and that is mostly its mood.

At this point I must say a word about the recording. Firstly we are not given enough information about its antecedents but it is rather brittle, bright and I could say ‘in your face’. In addition my version was faulty on track 1. This recorded sound works to a certain extent with the opening movement and with the vivace finale, the longest movement, but in the slow movement the effect can be harsh, even if you jump up and turn down the treble.  These comments also apply to the Piano Quintet.

The Quintet falls into three compact movements: Animato, Andante and finally an Allegro which is the longest of the three. It was premiered by the famous Juilliard Quartet and the end of the third movement was described by Howard Taubman who was at the time music critic for the New York Times as having a “mood both inward looking and serene in its closing pages”. I would add yes, but after much turbulence, tension and questioning. The Sonata Allegro has an almost dodecaphonic first theme. I thought of Alban Berg at least once and sometimes Hindemith. The movement is full of fire and of conflict and represents Bloch’s crowning achievement in chamber music.

I love the music but not the recording and will look elsewhere for a more permanent version of these pieces for my collection. However the performances are truly fantastic and committed and if you can bear the recorded sound then the Pro Arte Quartet and Howard Karp will impress you. They really believe in this music and convince right from the first bar. Their co-ordinated dynamics especially in challenging passages are a revelation and their love of these scores shines through.

So I’m in a bit of a dichotomy really, I’m not sure what to recommend, but then it was ever thus with CD collecting.

Gary Higginson

And another perspective from Rob Barnett

Bloch’s sequence of five quartets began with the hour long Quatuor à Cordes. The first three movements were written in Europe; the finale was the first piece of music he completed in the USA. Europe was deep in the Great War. His next quartet would not appear until the final year of the next World War. His new homeland offered him little financial reward and, at first, few friends.

Without bursting the bounds of tonality the First Quartet is a work of sustained intensity – even torment. The harshness verging on brutality, abrasion and biting attack of the Pro Arte in the first two movements is completely at one with the subject matter. It registers the more strongly in this first stereo recording. The Andante is more gentle; meditative but not utopian. This is sorrowing music recollecting contentment - including an innocent Swiss dance theme at 7:20 - but not conferring it. Clouds darken the horizon. To a degree those clouds evaporate for the finale which has its moments of delight and carillon celebration amid the thrumming, guttural, rosin-rich attack. If you are looking to experience a serious large-scale quartet that faces the grim realities and claws from them something of the supernal and the redemptive then this quartet - and this recording - is for you.

The Griller's 1954 mono Decca set of the first four quartets includes a hardly less fine reading of the First Quartet but the stereo dimension offered by Laurel adds valuably to the experience of this music. I have not heard what I presume is the only other stereo version – the CD from the Portland Quartet on Arabesque. It would be good to hear from listeners who do know that disc.

The Piano Quintet No. 2 was written within three years of the composer’s death with his health in a parlous state due to cancer. The seclusion of the Bloch house at Agate Beach, Oregon provided the locale. A three movement work, it was premiered by the Juilliard Quartet with Leonid Hambro in New York on 6 December 1957. The quintet lacks little of the intensity of the First String Quartet but to this is added a relentless rhythmic vitality. There is very little of the piano as hero-soloist. More often the instrument is primus inter pares with the string players. Especially in the finale the piled-high intensity recalls that of the Martinů Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. This tempestuous writing fades into the sort of shimmering hard-won contentment that is but rarely found in the First Quartet.

It is a pleasure to report that this long awaited re-mastering of the Bloch First String Quartet is now available again. The Second Piano Quintet was formerly on Laurel LR-848CD, which is now out of print.

Magnificent playing that is more desperate than ardent from Karp and the Pro Arte.

Rob Barnett 

 


 


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