BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2 • Aura Qt; Hans Joerg Fink (pn) • MUSIQUES SUISSES MGB CD 6203 (51:44)
Although his name is well-known, Ernest Bloch’s compositional reputation rests chiefly on three or four works: Schelomo, Concerto Grosso No. 1, the Sacred Service, and perhaps Baal Shem—music that, though including some of his finest pieces, tends to skew his relevance toward the Jewish portion of the listening public, and doesn’t begin to represent the universal depth and breadth of his utterance. Most of those who are familiar with his entire output, which includes five symphonies, a major operatic work, five string quartets, and numerous other chamber works comparable in stature to those of Brahms, acknowledge him as one of the 20th century’s greatest masters. Therefore, to assert that Bloch’s two piano quintets are unjustly neglected is rather an understatement. These two works, written more than 30 years apart (1923, 1957) are excellent examples of Bloch’s abstract compositional prowess, as represented by two major works from his two most prolific periods: his early 40s, when he served as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and his late 70s, when he was living and working in self-imposed isolation in Oregon. The first quintet reveals Bloch’s transformation of the Franck/Ysaye aesthetic ethos into an intense cauldron of white-hot emotional vehemence, while the second reveals the composer’s successful distillation of this approach into something less extravagantly rhetorical, but no less intense emotionally.
I have written extensively about these works in the past; I therefore refer readers who seek greater detail to Fanfare 15:2, or to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com. It suffices here to state simply that the two piano quintets are among Bloch’s greatest works.
During the 1980s, Laurel, the California-based company founded by the late Herschel Burke Gilbert, and currently managed by his son John, released a series of superb performances of many of Bloch’s major chamber works. A significant contributor to many of these benchmark performances was the Pro Arte Quartet, which presented this music with both great technical power and blazing conviction. Their performances clearly surpassed the efforts of all other contenders. (It is therefore most regrettable that my Fanfare colleagues consistently fail to mention these recordings, which may be found and purchased via www.laurelrecord.com, in their recent discussions of various recordings of these works.)
Now, with the release on Musiques Suisses of the Aura Quartet’s performances of the two piano quintets, featuring Swiss pianist Jans Joerg Fink, there are recorded performances that rival the Pro Arte readings. The Aura Quartet boasts a varied personnel, with members from Australia, Spain, and Switzerland, who join Fink in promoting neglected but worthy examples of the piano quintet repertoire. Their readings of these two works bristle with a sizzling dynamism. As tightly focused as the Pro Arte renditions may be, the Aura are a bit more incisive and more meticulously articulated. On the other hand, the Pro Arte performances with pianist Howard Karp are somewhat more massively aggressive and forceful, even ferocious. Also, the Laurel CD includes as a bonus Bloch’s Suite No. 1 for cello solo in a fine performance by Parry Karp.
What is important is that listeners who enjoy the chamber music of, say, Shostakovich and Bartók, but are unfamiliar with that of Bloch take steps to remedy that situation. Either the Musiques Suisses or Laurel recordings will help them accomplish this most satisfactorily.