by Walter Simmons
BLOCH: Quintet No. 2 for Piano and Strings. LERDAHL: String Quartet No. 2. Pro Arte Quartet. LAUREL LR-128, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert, $9.98 [available from: Laurel Record, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, CA 90046].
Laurel Records and the Pro Arte Quartet continue their superb Bloch cycle with the premiere recording of the composer’s Piano Quintet No. 2. The work was composed in 1957, 34 years after its better-known predecessor, when. Bloch was 77 years old and his health was deteriorating. In any case a composition of this scope by a composer of Bloch’s stature would be welcome on records; but the Quintet No. 2 is a fine work in its own right. The Quintet No. 1, like the String Quartet No. 1 and the Violin Sonata No. 1, is a wild emotional outburst ablaze with nightmarish visions of impending doom. But by the time he reached the last decade of his life — a period during which he produced an impressive body of major works, including three symphonies, three string quartets, the Concerto Grosso No. 2, and the Piano Quintet No. 2 — Bloch had achieved a condensation of his musical language, without really diluting his metaphysical content. The rhetoric is simply less extravagant, the form less rhapsodic, and the gestures less expansive. There is a tendency toward rhythmic regularity — in both meter and pattern — that creates a neo-Baroque quality present explicitly in a work like the Concerto Grosso No. 2 but felt also in several contemporaneous works, the Piano Quintet No. 2 among them. Yet this is not to suggest that the work is routine or inferior in any way: The slow movement is a beautiful “haunted nocturne” of the sort Bloch could create so eloquently, while the third movement rages with an undiminished savagery and vitality.
As they further demonstrate with each successive release, the Pro Arte Quartet is among the finest string quartets recording today — indeed, probably the finest among those specializing in 20th-century music. I have known the Bloch Quintet No. 2 for about 15 years, through a tape of the first performance, featuring Leonid Hambro with the Juilliard Quartet. The work never held my interest much, until I heard this new recording. I don’t want to repeat myself in praising the ability of these players to discern and project the essential syntactical dynamics of a piece of music. I will simply say that those who have heard previous Pro Arte performances of Bloch will find this one to be on a comparable level. Those who haven’t obviously don’t follow my recommendations anyway. Does this ensemble intend to record the Piano Quintet No. 1? The New World Quartet with Grant Johannesen did a pretty good job a few years ago (Golden Crest CRDC-4193; seeFanfare IV:5, pp. 60-61). But that disc is hard to locate, and I think that the Pro Arte, with the impressive Howard Karp as pianist, could do an even better job.
Having heard them in so much Bloch, I was interested to observe how the group approaches a different kind of music altogether — in this case, a recent American string quartet in a serial style — perhaps the style that most listeners shun more than any other. Many who followed the contemporary music scene from the 1950s through the 70s feel that they had enough of this kind of thing rammed down their throats to last a lifetime. But those who concluded that the serial style is inherently bankrupt artistically should hear Fred Lerdahl’s String Quartet No. 2, completed in 1982. It is a highly complex work, quite demanding of both performers and listeners, but by no means incomprehensible — even on first hearing. Like some. of the recent efforts of Wuorinen and others, it represents a significant advance toward the development of an expressively versatile serial language. This is a real maturation, by comparison with the ungainly lurching and hysterical spasms of horror and dread that became clichés of the early serialists, followed by the reams of worthless busywork, intellectually ostentatious and artistically barren, that poured forth from American universities later on, accompanied by arrogant, defensive, and petulant posturing. Nor has Lerdahl joined those renegades who have compromised with candy-coated sound effects and evocative titles, in an attempt to graft on a cheap semblance of “romantic” sensibility.
Lerdahl embraces the post-Schoenbergian vocabulary of sounds, without either apology or dogma, creating a work that is as straightforward as a piece by Brahms, concerned with what it has to say, not with grinding an axe. Once one has been drawn into its unfolding, the experience becomes fascinating, as recurrent patterns and moments of tonal or rhythmic stability serve as points of reference. One is struck by the sophistication with which Lerdahl handles his material, so that one feels that the music sounds exactly as he means it to sound at all times, while an over-arching musical concept lends a sense of direction, purpose, and shape. There is certainly more to this work than one can grasp in a few hearings, and I am not yet sure just what Lerdahl is trying to say, but by the time it is through, one is disposed to delve into it more deeply, which is, after all, one of the most important considerations with any new piece.
The Pro Arte Quartet performs Lerdahl’s work with a brilliance and vigor that cut right through to its heart, so that every detail seems to have a reason for being there. It is an exemplary performance, demonstrating just what can be done with music like this. Lerdahl himself writes, “I never dreamed the Quartet would perform my piece so magnificently, right from the beginning…. Working with the Pro Arte was … almost as satisfying as composing the piece in the first place.” What can I add to that?
Only that the sound quality and disc production are extraordinarily fine. If I have a complaint, it is that the liner notes could be more informative about the Bloch Quintet and about Lerdah himself.