BLOCH: Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 for Piano and Strings; Suite No. 1 for Cello Solo.

BLOCH: Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 for Piano and Strings; Suite No. 1 for Cello Solo. Parry Karp, cello; Howard Karp, piano; Pro Arte String Quartet. LAUREL LR-848CD (ADD); 70:38. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

BLOCH: Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 for Piano and Strings. Paul Posnak, piano Portland String Quartet. ARABESQUE Z-6618 (DDD); 56:42. Produced by Jeral Benjamin and Ward Botsford.

BLOCH:  American Chamber Players, Miles Hoffman, artistic director. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7041-2 H1 (DDD); 55:06. Produced by Jon Newsom.

It has been ten years since a recording of Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1 has appeared. The most recent one featured the New World String Quartet, with pianist Grant Johannesen (Golden Crest CRDG-4193); relative to the few previous recordings, I found it to be reasonably good (see Fanfare 4:5, p. 60) The Piano Quintet No. 2 did not see its first recording until 1984, when the performance offered here on Laurel appeared on LP (see Fanfare 8:4, p. 187)   I found that reading to be superb and expressed the hope that pianist Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet would soon record No. 1 as well. Now, seven years later, that hope has been fulfilled; but not only has the Pro Arte group issued both quintets, but two other ensembles have as well, at virtually the same time! And, adding to the embarrassment of riches, all three recordings are truly excellent.

Bloch’s First Piano Quintet belongs to the rather large group of major works he composed during the early 1920s, while director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. It is one of Bloch’s greatest works, in which he adapted the Franco-Belgian language of Franck and his disciples, with its cyclical motivic procedures, to embody a grim, angry, yet ultimately redemptive vision that addresses the most important spiritual and metaphysical issues of mankind. In so doing, he expanded the texturally and harmonically rich language that served as his point of departure to include a much more harsh level of dissonance, aggressively slashing rhythms, and plaintive motifs based on the exotic scale-forms generally associated with the composer’s immersion in his Jewish spiritual heritage. In fact, an almost wailing effect is achieved by the use of microtonal melodic inflections. The result is a work of tremendous power, intensity, grandeur, and mystery — a work that reaches extreme depths of despair, though it eventually attains a serene sense of resignation.

Not surprisingly — as with Bloch’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, which it resembles in many ways — the First Piano Quintet, with its unequivocally serious intentions, unrestrained emotionalism, and undeniable eloquence, has elicited considerable critical enthusiasm, right from the beginning, sometimes expressed in superlative terms. Early on, Ernest Newman wrote, “No other piece of chamber music produced in any country during that period can be placed in the same class with [Bloch’s First Quintet], adding that it “combines the maximum of passionate expression with the maximum of logical construction,” (which, in my opinion, is one of the chief criteria of musical greatness). Olin Downes found it to be “the greatest work in its form since the piano quintets of Brahms and Cesar Franck.” And, much more recently, in his notes for the new Arabesque recording, Bloch scholar David Kushner describes both piano quintets as “seminal achievements in the master’s catalog and among the towering accomplishments in the chamber repertory of the twentieth century.” These are certainly impressive testimonials; however, even more interesting are some of the extravagant verbal exegeses of the work itself by writers like the English scholar Alex Cohen and others. Although their florid, picturesque rhetoric makes presumptive leaps, partaking of a literalness often frowned upon today, I find some of these writings to be accurate and perceptive enough to serve as helpful interpretive bridges for the less experienced listener.

As the Quintet No. 1 appeared during Bloch’s fertile Cleveland years, the Quintet No. 2 dates from his equally fertile Oregon years, the final decade of his life. Like the composer’s other late chamber works, the Second Quintet — a little more than half the length of its predecessor — reveals a condensation of his musical language: the rhetoric is less extravagant, form less rhapsodic, the rhythm more regular, and the gestures less expansive. There is also less dwelling on texture, on creating exotic atmospheres. However, the metaphysical content remains essentially unchanged, its intensity undiminished. The two works, composed 34 years apart, make a fascinating and rewarding pair, and, taken together, reveal a great deal about Bloch’s evolution and identity as an artist.

As noted earlier, each of the new releases features superb performances — technically secure, emotionally committed, and interpretively searching. They do differ somewhat with regard to emphasis of various details, but trying to make evaluative judgments is very difficult and even a little unfair. Basically, I think a modern recording of these two works belongs in the collection of every serious listener. Which of these three discs to select is less important. Forced to choose among them, I would give the edge to the Laurel release because the Pro Arte group has a tad more body, more visceral power, and more attention to contrapuntal detail. Plus, Laurel throws in the Suite No. 1 for cello solo as a bonus, in an impassioned performance by Parry Karp that underlines the fact that the work was composed by Bloch, not Bach.

On the other hand, the Portland readings are taut, lean, incisive–far more so than their versions of Bloch’s string quartets might lead one to expect. And Arabesque’s sound quality is velvety smooth and clear. 

The American Chamber Players, featured on the Koch release, are a group in residence at the Library of Congress. Their performances are a trifle less taut and intense than those on the other two discs, but just a trifle. And their readings reveal valuable nuances of their own. The CD is encoded at a very low level, however, requiring a considerable boost of the amplifier; and there are only two access points — one per quintet This is a bit of a nuisance.

Program notes for each release are written by recognized Bloch authorities and are thorough, intelligent, and informative.