BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4

BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4 • Griller St Qt • DECCA 475 6071, mono (2 CDs: 147:01)

Let me clarify one point that may not be apparent from the headnote: Ernest Bloch composed five string quartets. The Griller Quartet recorded Nos. 1-4 in June and July, 1954. Although they gave the premiere performances of Nos. 2-5, they did not record No. 5, which was not composed until 1956.

Although they have not yet achieved universal recognition, Bloch’s five string quartets are among the most distinguished of the 20th century, comparable in quality of content and workmanship to those of Bartók and Shostakovich. The Quartet No. 1 was completed in 1916; its last movement was the first music Bloch composed upon arriving in the United States. The Quartet No. 2 was completed in 1945, No. 3 in 1952, and No. 4 in 1954. The Griller Quartet was a fanatically dedicated group of musicians who flourished as one of England’s foremost string quartets from the 1930s through the 1950s. They were introduced to Bloch by Alex Cohen, a violinist who was a friend and eloquent advocate of the composer, and dedicatee of the Quartet No. 2, as well as a mentor of Sidney Griller. The Grillers spent much of the 1940s and 50s in the United States, and, as indicated by the foregoing, worked very closely with Bloch during those years; these recordings were made under his supervision. “It is a composer’s dream come true to hear his work played as you have played it,” he said after the premiere of No. 2.

I have discussed the Bloch Quartets individually in previous reviews (see, so I will restrict my comments here to general summary statements. Quartet No. 1 stands apart from the others, both chronologically and stylistically. Nearly an hour in duration, it is a direct descendent of the Franck approach (which is really where the composer’s roots lay), but filtered through Bloch’s own intense, passionately rhapsodic, and often bitter, sensibility. No. 2, composed nearly two decades later, is far more tightly structured. In my opinion, it is Bloch’s greatest work—a masterpiece of mood, emotional expression, and abstract formal concentration, revealing his greatest gifts at their highest realization. Indeed, it is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century chamber music, a work that English critic Ernest Newman ranked alongside the late Beethoven quartets. Dedicated to the Grillers, the Quartet No. 3 is similar to its predecessor in its emphasis on counterpoint, but it is less probing, more concise, more benign and “classical” in character, despite its emphatic gestures. Composed at the same time as the Concerto Grosso No. 2, it shares much in common with this work as well. No. 4 is rather austere and rarefied, and a little pale in comparison to the previous quartets.

I have long been an advocate of the Pro Arte Quartet’s recordings of these works on the Laurel label (a series that also failed to include the Quartet No. 5), and feel that they far surpass any other modern recordings (the Portland Quartet’s recordings on Arabesque are hopelessly inadequate and should be avoided, except for the fact that they do include No. 5). Therefore, it was most illuminating to compare them alongside this newly remastered release of the Griller Quartet’s venerable performances. On the whole, the two ensembles take rather similar interpretive approaches to these works, exerting themselves mightily to summon the sheer force and endurance that this music demands. I found myself favoring one performance for a few moments, then leaning toward the other, back and forth. On the whole, the Pro Arte Quartet has, of course, the benefit of more modern recording techniques, highlighting the harmonic content through greater fullness of sonority. This is especially significant for the First Quartet, with its richly romantic harmonic language. On the other hand, Laurel has not yet issued this recording on compact disc, while the Grillers offer a fine reading, tearing into the fourth movement with an extraordinarily hair-raising intensity.

The ProArte performance of the great Quartet No. 2 (which was the top selection on my 1984 Want List) seems clearly superior to the Griller. Here, as well, the greater harmonic clarity, richness of sonority, and precision of ensemble provide a distinct advantage, allowing the work’s immense scope and vision, embracing both spiritual beauty and sheer visceral force, to achieve optimal realization.

Although Laurel’s releases of Quartets 1 and 2 boast superior sound quality, their recordings of Quartets 3 and 4—from the early digital era—do not sound all that great. In fact, they suffer from much the same shrillness and stridency that characterizes Decca’s Griller recordings. Furthermore, while the Pro Arte performances may be more precise technically, the Griller performances often seem to “go for broke,” at times sacrificing technical precision for sheer emotional intensity. Their performances generally seem to display a fuller, more whole-hearted understanding of the expressive content of these two later works.

Many collectors seem to find Laurel CDs hard to acquire, although John Gilbert, who now runs the company he inherited from his father, the late Herschel Burke Gilbert, assures me that their recordings are readily accessible via the label’s website, at The Decca/Griller set is disappointingly stingy with program notes. If I had to choose between the two sets, I don’t know what I’d do. I’m inclined to recommend getting both, but that’s easy for me to say.