BLOCH: String Quartets: No. 1. Piano Quintets: No. 2

by Walter Simmons



BLOCH String Quartets: No. 1. Piano Quintets: No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet; Howard Karp (pn) • LAUREL LR-820 (76:48)

This is a reissue that will be of considerable import to those who are interested in the major chamber works of Ernest Bloch. As I have commented extensively on both these works and these performances in the past, I will try to be brief here, and refer those who wish more detailed comments to earlier issues of Fanfare, to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com, or to my book (see Web site for details), which has an entire chapter devoted to Bloch’s life and works. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 was begun in Geneva, and completed in New York, bridging the period of the composer’s immigration to this country in 1916. It was composed immediately after Schelomo. The First Quartet is a powerful, visionary work, conceived on a grand scale, and is nearly an hour in duration. It represents an expansive treatment of classical form, as later developed by Cesar Franck, and still later by Eugène Ysaye, further shaped by Bloch’s own ferocious, passionate musical personality. There have been few recordings of this work over the years, and fewer still that are able to meet its emotional and technical requirements. In 1982 Laurel released a stupendous performance of the work on LP, played by the Pro Arte Quartet, the first of several extraordinary recordings featuring this ensemble in Bloch’s chamber music. Most of these recordings have made their way onto compact disc, but only now is this recording of the First Quartet thus available. However, last year Decca issued on CD the historic 1954 readings of the first four quartets (the Fifth hadn’t yet been written) by the Griller Quartet, the highly esteemed English ensemble that worked closely with Bloch, and gave the premieres of Quartets Nos. 3, 4, and 5. Their recordings were made under his direct supervision. These are brilliant, intensely committed performances and Decca’s reissue offers the opportunity to acquire those four works at quite a reasonable price. Then why would one be interested in Laurel’s reissue now? The chief reason would be that the latter offers full, rich ADD sound quality. Bloch’s Quartet No. 1 is post-romantic in style and symphonic in scale, and benefits greatly from the sonic breadth thus afforded. Decca’s re-mastering is fine, but the original mid 1950s sound is tightly cramped and a little strident.

The Piano Quintet No. 2 makes for a fascinating companion piece, as it is the composer’s last major work, composed in 1957, more than 40 years after the First Quartet. Bloch’s Weltanschauung—with its savagery, passion, and sober introspection—remains largely unchanged, but the means of realizing it are now much tighter and less rhetorical. When the reading at hand first appeared on LP in 1984, it was the work’s first recording, and set an astoundingly high standard. It was then reissued on CD in 1991 with an equally powerful performance of the Quintet No. 1. Heard today these performances have not lost their primacy, although a few other fine recordings of the Piano Quintets have appeared in the interim.

I should add that within the year Laurel is planning to reissue the aforementioned reading of the Piano Quintet No. 1, coupled with the Pro Arte Quartet’s rendition of the String Quartet No. 5—a recording that has not been previously issued. That is a release I eagerly await, as no recording of Bloch’s final quartet has yet done justice to the work.