BLOCH: String Quartets: No. 2. No. 3; No. 4. Prelude. Night Two Pieces. Paysages. In the Mountains.

BLOCH: String Quartet No. 2. Prelude. Night Two Pieces. Pro Arte Quartet. LAUREL LR-826CD (compact disc [ADD]; 53:41), produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

BLOCH: String Quartets: No. 3; No. 4. Paysages. In the Mountains. Pro Arte Quartet. LAUREL LR-841CD (compact disc [DDD]; 69:37), produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert [available from: Laurel Record, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, CA 90046-17981.

With these two new releases, Laurel — perhaps America’s most elite small record company — enters the CD market with a continuation of its highly touted cycle of Bloch chamber music. The recording of the Quartet No. 2 was originally issued as an LP in 1984, and received high praise from many quarters, including Fanfare. where it appeared on several Want Lists. Describing the Pro Arte renditions of both Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Fanfare 7:5, pp. 156-57), I wrote, “This group displays the kind of cohesive comprehension of the composer’s conception and the ability to realize that conception in sound that creates a performance tradition against which subsequent renditions must be compared. Hearing the Pro Arte Quartet play this music is hearing it for the first time.”

Like his five symphonies, Bloch’s quartets were spaced quite unevenly throughout his creative lifespan, the final three entries (in each genre) appearing during the composer’s incredible fertile final decade. In the case of the quartets, No. 2, though completed when the composer was 66, occupies a stylistic middleground between the expansive rhetoric of the First Quartet and the tight concentration of the final three. Perhaps because of this, I find it the most fully satisfying of thequartets and would place it among the handful of Bloch’s greatest works, as it captures both the grim harshness and the noble idealism of the composer’s spiritual vision at its most eloquent. while representing his compositional mastery at full maturity. In view of the peerless performance offered here, the release must be considered an indispensable document of 20th-century chamber music at its best.

Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 are somewhat more difficult to conceptualize than their predecessors. although their actual musical language is no less accessible. One still encounters the bold, savage intensity, balanced by mysterious excursions to exotic oases of eerie serenity. Yet, as in most of Bloch’s works from the 1950s, there is a shift in the direction of greater abstraction and concentration, entailing a retreat from the extravagant rhetoric of his earlier works — fewer grand lyrical surges, fewer obvious climactic releases, a phraseology that is more motivic than thematic. (Commenting on the Third Quartet, the composer himself said. “It is quite natural that a man of 72 does not react and feel as he did at 20, 30, 40, and 50.”) The familiar inner dynamics remain, but are built implicitly into every phrase, instead of being conveyed through broad, theatrical gestures. The result in each case is a rather austere, controlled distillation of Bloch’s metaphysical essence. surprisingly slow to impress itself on the consciousness of the casual listener, who is likely to find such works uniformly harsh, grim, and undifferentiated.

However, while the Third and Fourth Quartets may create a similar impression, stylistic and structural differences do become apparent with greater familiarity. Quartet No. 3, composed in 1952, evokes a somewhat neo-Baroque quality, stemming from the metrical regularity and contrapuntal clarity found also in the roughly contemporaneous Concerto Grosso No. 2 and the Piano Quintet No. 2. Quartet No. 4, on the other hand, completed a year or two later. is somewhat more irregular in phraseology, and is a stranger, more intuitive work. In the case of both works, more intensive attentive exposure increasingly brings a greater sense of their richness and depth of expression as well as an awareness of their kinship with Bloch’s better-known compositions.

The Pro Arte Quartet exerts itself mightily to project these quartets with conviction. offering readings of tremendous vigor and vehemence. Though their incisiveness and emotional intensity leave all rival versions behind, their margin of superiority is not quite as wide as in the case of their previous Bloch recordings. One misses moments of warmth and tenderness captured in other recordings, such as the generally less adequate Portland Quartet set (Arabesque 6511-3; see Fanfare 7:4, pp. 134-36). There is an unremittingly harsh, cold, wiry quality to the Pro Arte performances that can feel quite severe over extended listening periods.  

The fact that previous Pro Arte/Bloch performances have not been nearly this extreme suggests that the recording itself may be significantly responsible. This suspicion is supported by a direct comparison of the two CDs under review here, one originally recorded with analog technology, the other recorded digitally: the latter is far more harsh. Producer Gilbert is obviously aware of this difference, providing some rather candid and unequivocal comments in the program booklet of the ADD release only: “. . . if the music is recorded both analog and digital at the same time. and if the predominant sound is of strings, . . . compact discs made from the analog recordings will sound warmer and more true to the string sound than the digital recording, which gives the strings a thinner, ‘tinnier’. more sterile sound.” In general, my own experience confirms this distinction, but I have never heard it demonstrated in such extreme fashion, and I have encountered some fine-sounding DDD recordings of strings.

Not to be overlooked is the opportunity provided by these two CDs to become acquainted with all nine of Bloch’s miniatures for string quartet. Bloch wrote quite a few brief character pieces; some have been collected into groups (e.g. Visions and Prophecies. Five Sketches in Sepia — both for piano solo), while others have remained simply as miscellany. However, since his compositional identity has tended to rest on larger-scale works, few of these miniatures have ever drawn much attention. But many are little gems — atmospheric mood-sketches reflecting the same visionary qualities and brilliant craftsmanship found in the larger, more substantial works. Of the string-quartet miniatures, all but the Two Pieces (1938; 1950) date from 1925. Bloch’s other most fertile period; almost all are of the highest caliber and worthy of acquaintance. Paysages consists of three exotic vignettes; In the mountains presents two contrasting images. Most create the impressions of dark, nocturnal mystery found often among Bloch’s works; they are conjured as effectively in these little pieces as anywhere else. They arc performed on these recordings with all the probing conviction customarily afforded to acknowledged masterpieces.