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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Piano Quintet No.1 (1921-3) [34:09]
Night for string quartet (1923) [3:03]
Paysages (Landscapes) for string quartet (1923) [6:47]
Two Pieces for string quartet (1938/50) [7:28]
Piano Quintet No.2 (1957) [18:52]
Piers Lane (piano)
Goldner String Quartet (Dene Olding (violin 1), Dimity Hall (violin 2), Irina Morozova (viola), Julian Smiles (cello))
rec. Menuhin School, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, February 2007. DDD
HYPERION CDA67638 [70:27]
Experience Classicsonline

It is never too late to make good personal discoveries of great music. Indeed, there is something quite wonderful about finding these “new” gems. If there is anything regrettable to knowing more and more music it is the absence of these surprises. Just think of the envy you might feel of an interested music-lover who gets to listen to Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, or the Brahms Piano Quartet for the first time.
“ Discoveries” that come late are no reason for shame for alleged ‘previous ignorance’ - as if one could have known all the repertoire at the moment of one’s musical inception. They are to be embraced and cherished. The beauty of classical music, and in particular classical radio, is not least due to its facilitating such discoveries.
Another way to happen upon surprises involves aimless browsing in record stores, something that has become the privilege of those living in large, culture-focused cities. That’s how in 2004 I came upon what was a disc of such discovery for me: Bloch’s - four out of five - String Quartets in the superb recording of the Griller Quartet then re-issued on Decca (see review).
Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) was born in Switzerland, educated in Belgium - where he was a student of Eugène Ysaÿe - and moved to the US during World War I, becoming a US citizen in 1924. He was the founding music director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. After a decade long sojourn to Switzerland he returned to the US where he spent his last 18 years in Oregon.
Now, knowing Bloch for more than just his exceptionally beautiful Schelomo for cello and orchestra (or “Rhapsodie hébraïque pour violoncelle et grand orchestre”), I keep a keen eye out for any new Bloch CD to cross my desk. Hyperion’s recording of Bloch’s two Piano Quintets with the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane is one such disc.
Admittedly it took quite a bit longer than expected to take to these works; extraordinarily high expectations of immediate fascination didn’t help. What I easily appreciated though, and still consider the ‘secret’ highlights of this Hyperion release, are the small, mostly early pieces for string quartet that are the fillers between the two substantial quintets.
Bloch’s idiom covers anything from romantic lyricism - the aforementioned Schelomo being the best example - to neo-classicism to an acerbic, Shostakovichian bite. The Impressionistic works “Night” comprises about three minutes worth of music, composed in 1923. From the same year comes “Landscapes”; a miniature three movement string quartet, his “0th”, if you will. These two are certainly more in the lyrical camp. “Night” gently rocks back and forth; a lullaby fit for cradling figures from Tim Burton’s mind.
Paysages – “Landscapes” starts with a similar, all-pianissimo movement depicting, in the phrase of Glenn Gould, ‘the idea of north’. It had been inspired by Robert Flaherty’s film “Nanook of the North” . The second movement is meatier fare. Alpestre is a homage to his Swiss homeland that gives the viola juicy material to work with. Tongataboo, with faux-naïve stomping and entrancing rhythmic repetitions, evokes tribal dances of Tonga. In doing so it comes closest to the driving energy of Bartók in his string quartets.
The “Two Pieces” is a two-movement string ‘quartetlet’ dedicated to the Griller Quartet. It consists of two very different and separate movements, composed in 1938 and 1950. Zany lyricism turns into astringency in the Andante moderato, before running out of steam in contemplative C-major. The Allegro molto is a vibrantly vivacious piece, moving along busily except for a little lyrical lacunae at its center, as if a structural inversion of the Andante.
The Piano Quintet no.1 is the work of the 33 year old Bloch, begun just after he started his position in Cleveland. At well over thirty minutes, it towers over the little string quartetlets and is nearly twice the length of his 1957 Piano Quintet no.2. It’s dark, wildly chugging along in whirls and employs quarter-tones. Though thematically cyclical in a Brahmsian way, I cannot determine any ‘idea’ that might guide me through the first movement, much less the entire work. The second movement (Andante mistico) is more romantically inclined, and if it isn’t lyrical per se, at least it is cut from larger, longer swathes of music that lead right into the third movement. That Allegro energico immediately calls to memory the beginning of the opening Agitato. The rippling current running through it is at a fast clip, sweeping and powerful, with the piano working in atmospheric ways underneath the busy, thorny passages of the strings. It peters out gently, consolingly – like the first of the Two Pieces – on a very deliberate, reiterated C-major chord.
Bloch composed the Second Piano Quintet for the opening of the Alfred Hertz Memorial Concert Hall at Berkeley and only two years before he died of colon cancer. A calmly, perhaps aimlessly, ruminating Andante sits between an agitated, aggressively pulsing Animato first and the Allegro third movement. Twelve-tone rows work within a tonal/modal language that no one would ever think of calling “a-tonal” just from listening to it. Rising figures buzz along, accompanied by little shrieks in the violins, doing their part to give the slow movement its serene, mystical quality. It moves attacca into the finale, an assertive movement similar to the first – before its last two of almost eight minutes end the Quintet very softly, in a contemplative pp.
Jens F. Laurson


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