BLOCH: The Five String Quartets

by Walter Simmons

BLOCH:  The Five String Quartets.   Portland String Quartet. ARABESQUE 6511-3 (digital), 3 LPs.

Here, 25 years after the composer’s death, is the first complete recording of Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets, a cycle of works that many have compared in stature to the quartets of Bartok, Shostakovich, and Hindemith. During the mid-19508, the Griller Quartet recorded the first four (London LLA-23; Quartet No. 5 had not yet been written). Those performances were diligent but emotionally restrained, a frequent shortcoming in performances of Bloch’s chamber music. The debilitating effect of such expressive reticence on the music is most clearly appreciated by auditioning one of the few truly idiomatic Bloch performances alongside a more typically pedestrian reading of the same work.

The two recent releases of the Quartet No.1 create a natural opportunity.  The work was completed in 1916, shortly after the composer’s arrival in America. Like Schelomo, which derived from the same period, the quartet is an expansive, intensely emotional work, with a strong Hebraic flavor. Nearly an hour long, it is less concentrated structurally than the masterworks that followed in the next decade, but the patient listener will find in it a powerful early presentation of the basic Ernest Bloch world-view: an endless search for peace and serenity in a brutal world of strife and conflict. In the works of the 1910s, this theme had a distinct ethnic identification; later Bloch was to express his humanistic view in more universal terms.

The Pro Arte Quartet’s recording of this work, released last year on Laurel (LR-120; see Fanfare VI: 3, pp. 73ff), was a stunning realization of the work. The Portland Quartet’s performance is, unfortunately, simply one more routine traversal.  The difference between the two is unmistakable to any listener: an eloquent personal statement of faith in the face of overwhelming tribulations, on the one hand, and inconsolable, protracted kvetching, on the other.

This distinction is important in considering the subsequent quartets, where current alternatives are almost nonexistent and previous recordings are less formidable. The reader should be advised, however, that Laurel is expected to issue the Pro Arte group’s recording of the Quartet No. 2 imminently, a fact that may affect some collectors’ purchasing decisions.

The String Quartet No. 2 was completed shortly after the end of World War II, nearly 30 years after the first quartet. Not surprisingly, the work reflects the considerable advances in formal sophistication also found in the Violin Sonata No. 1 and the Piano Quintet No. 1. Here one finds a relative terseness, resulting from a concentration and abstraction of Bloch’s language — no less intense, but shorn of obligatory redundancies and symmetries: less ethnically explicit, without denying its essentially Jewish character (an inner spiritual quality as intrinsic to Bloch as the Italian character is to Puccini). Ernest Newman described the Quartet No. 2 as finest work of our time in this genre, ore that is worthy to stand beside the last quartets of Beethoven,” and I am inclined to agree with that assessment.

The remaining three quartets were composed during Bloch’s tremendously active final decade. During that time, he also wrote three symphonies, the second Piano Quintet, second Concerto Grosso, and the six solo suites, among other works. Like most of these, the third, fourth, and fifth quartets indicate Bloch’s further evolution in the direction of abstraction and concentration. The gradual elimination of primitivistic outbursts, of grand lyrical surges, and of obvious climactic releases leave the listener with a rather austere distillation of Bloch’s metaphysical essence. The inner dynamics are all there, but are built implicitly into every note, rather than conveyed theatrically. Yet despite the craftsmanship, uncompromising artistic standards, and restless, searching intellect evident in these three quartets, the casual listener is likely to find them uniformly grim and undifferentiated — perhaps even uninteresting.

My contention is that these quartets are equivalent in caliber to the other major works of Bloch’s later years, but that without the incisive analytical penetration of a truly virtuoso performance, the more rarefied syntax, with its subtle contrasts, conflicts, and resolutions, fails to emerge clearly. This is the case with the Griller Quartet recordings of Nos. 3 and 4, with the New World Quartet performance of  No. 3 (Vox SVBX-5109), with the Fine Arts Quartet performance of No. 5 (Concert-Disc 225), and, alas, with the readings by the Portland Quartet offered here. Have I ever heard these three quartets played as I would like? No. But through repeated listening I have become convinced that there is great music in these works that is not being projected. Having argued on behalf of a complete recording of the Bloch Quartets for a long time. I am very disappointed not to be able to endorse this first effort whole-heartedly. I hope that Laurel will decide to complete its Bloch cycle with the brilliant Pro Arte Quartet, which may be the first group truly capable of plumbing the depths of these works.

The Portland Quartet offers the kind of adequately literal, but phlegmatic performance that is all too common among under-recorded repertoire — the kind that fills the need for a first recording and whose shortcomings are often overlooked by listeners unacquainted with the music, which may then be dismissed as “second-rate.” These quartets deserve more than this sort of recording, although it is a sincere effort and a handsome production. The box is adorned by a beautiful color photograph of the composer in his last years. Suzanne Bloch’s program notes are informative but contain several carelessly misattributed dates. Sound quality and pressing quality are excellent throughout.