BLOCH: String Ouartet No. 2. Prelude. Night. Two Pieces.

BLOCH: String Ouartet No. 2. Prelude. Night. Two Pieces. Pro Arte String Quartet. LAUREL LR-126, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert, $9.98.

In his brilliant essay, “Ferruccio Busoni: Historia Abscondita” (Fanfare VII: 3), Adrian Corleonis describes Busoni’s concept of “unity of key,” through which he circumvented the cul de sac of an over-systematized notion of tonal relationships that permeated the Austro-Germanic musical mentality like a religious obsession. Busoni’s “unity of key” was an alternative to the theoretical strait-jacket that soon led to serialism, which was embraced as scripture by those compelled to substitute one dogma for another. But, as Corleonis admits, Busoni was one of many composers during this period who had the courage and independence of mind to explore the opportunity for a new tonal freedom. Scriabin, Sibelius, Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, and many others — in addition to the obvious example of Debussy — all found their own individual ways around the tonality “problem,” exposing exciting possibilities rather than extinguishing them.

Ernest Bloch arrived on the scene at a time when the innovations of Debussy and Strauss (it is fashionable today to minimize the radical side of Strauss) were in the air. Drawing from them and from his own turbulently emotional Jewish temperament, he forged a highly articulate language in which the perennial polar balance between Dionysian abandon and Apollonian control achieved an unprecedented expressive tension. Bloch, perhaps less intellectually sophisticated than a Busoni, but musically cosmopolitan by instinct, plunged into the theoretical maelstrom without inhibition and seized the new tonal freedom with bold confidence, relying only on his own artistry and craftsmanship. It is in this, the development of a true musical “expressionism,” that Bloch’s greatest aesthetic contribution lies.

The Quartet No. 2 (1946) is the finest of Bloch’s five essays in the medium, joining the Violin Sonata No. 1 (1920) and the Piano Quintet No. 1 (1923) as his most important chamber music. In comparison with the two earlier works, however, the quartet reveals a higher level of compositional maturity. The previous tendency toward rhetorical extravagance is now distilled into tighter, more concentrated structural designs, with no sacrifice of emotional intensity. The work begins with a mysterious contemplation for unaccompanied violin, unstable both rhythmically and tonally. As this soliloquy is gradually answered contrapuntally by the remaining voices, a mood is set for the exploration of unknown spiritual territory — a mood, I might add, that reminds me strikingly of Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, although I may be alone in this perhaps strange association. (I have often reflected on the strong — if somewhat unlikely — parallel between these two composers.) By the time the last movement, a brilliant passacaglia and fugue, has reached its culmination, the forces of aberration and the forces of rationalism have achieved a partial reconciliation.

This new recording appeared too late to be included in the review of the Portland Quartet’s complete traversal of the Bloch string quartets (Arabesque 6511-3; seeFanfare VII: 4). The performance by the Pro Arte takes its place alongside their recent recording of the Quartet No. 1 (Laurel LR-120), setting a new standard in the interpretation of Bloch’s music. 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. The recent Portland/Arabesque set is, sadly, a wasted effort. I only hope that the public response to these Laurel discs will be sufficient to stimulate the completion of the cycle by this extraordinary group of musicians.

As highly desirable bonuses, several miniatures for string quartet are also included on this disc. Each is finely wrought and representative of the spirit of Bloch’s major works. In fact, each could easily have served as a movement of a larger work, but for some reason or other was left alone. The Prelude (1925) is a beautifully simple, modal elegy. Night, composed during the same year and once available on a 78-rpm disc, is a typically Blochian nocturnal mood-sketch. TheTwo Pieces, one of which dates from 1938 and the other from 1950, function together as a sort of prelude and scherzo, somewhat more abstract in tone than the earlier pieces.

The sound quality of the recording is superb, with a natural sonic ambience, which is typical of the best Laurel discs. Surfaces are fine.