BLOCH: Piano Quintets: No. 1. String Quartets: No. 5

by Walter Simmons



BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1. String Quartets: No. 5 • Pro Arte Quartet; Howard Karp (pn)• LAUREL LR-853 (ADD; 67:01)

In 1991 Laurel released a CD comprising Ernest Bloch’s two piano quintets, performed by pianist Howard Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet (LR-848CD). These were—and continue to be—the finest recorded representations of what are among this composer’s masterpieces. Evidently that initial run sold out. John Gilbert, son of the late founder of Laurel, Herschel Burke Gilbert, has decided to reissue those performances on two separate discs, each quintet coupled with a Bloch work not previously released by them on CD. Several issues back I reviewed LR-820, which paired the Piano Quintet No. 2 with the String Quartet No. 1. The latter—a stupendous performance and recording (see Want List)—had been released on LP in 1982 but had never been reissued on CD. Now Laurel is issuing the Piano Quintet No. 1 with the String Quartet No. 5, which had been recorded in 1989—at the same time as the quintets—but was never released at all. (Herschel Gilbert was notoriously painstaking, and produced these recordings single-handedly, preparing them for release with a deliberateness that many found infuriating. As it happened, he did not live to preside over the release of the Fifth Quartet.) Those cynical consumers ready to cry “rip-off” at the notion of having to duplicate their recordings of the quintets in order to acquire the newly released quartets should be appeased by learning that the Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 are too long to fit on one compact disc.

The Quartet No. 5 was one of Bloch’s last works, composed in 1955-56. Although it was premiered by the Griller Quartet, the English ensemble that worked closely with the composer, it was written after the group’s seminal readings of the first four were recorded (currently available on Decca 475 6071). This new Laurel release is only its third recording, as far as I know. The first featured the Fine Arts Quartet in an excellent performance recorded shortly after the work was composed. That one was released initially on a Concert-Disc LP, then reissued by Everest, also on LP. The second was the Portland Quartet’s sadly inadequate traversal of all five quartets, released by Arabesque originally on LP in 1983, and reissued on CD soon after. With this release, Laurel now offers all five quartets in splendid performances by the Pro Arte Quartet.

Bloch’s late works reveal the same grim, intense persona found in his earlier works. But they also exhibit a concentration and distillation of rhetoric, with angular motifs and complex formal designs that offer little to gratify or engage the listener on initial acquaintance, although they do reward close, attentive listening. Like the Fourth Quartet, the Fifth is consistently severe in tone, with the slight exception of the scherzo, whose discrete sections and contrasting material make it somewhat easier to follow. A little more than half an hour in duration, the work comprises four movements, of which the first two and the last two are connected, further complicating the task of grasping it aurally. There is a strong overall sense of tonal dynamic tendencies, although much of the thematic material is in itself atonal. The first movement, which introduces some seven different motifs, is subdivided into three sections—two Grave sections flanking a central Allegro. However, the Allegro itself comprises three sections, of which the central one is slow and similar to the large outer sections of the movement. The overall character of the movement is austere, somber, and introspective. The vigorous Allegro material is somewhat neo-Baroque in phraseology, along the lines of the Concerto Grosso No. 2. The subdued ending of the first movement elides with the slow second movement. Nocturnal in character, and also quite severe, with gnarled, chromatic motifs, it makes a rather drab, colorless impression, with little expressive contour. The energetic scherzo that follows offers the quartet’s strongest point of contrast. The trio section introduces an ironic note with what sounds like a Yiddish dance fragment. The final movement opens with a grandiloquent sequence of triads—an unusual effect for Bloch. Though it is marked Allegro deciso, the vigor of the opening soon abates, as motifs heard earlier in the work are reviewed, leading to a peaceful, quiescent ending. Bloch’s daughter Suzanne, to whom the quartet was dedicated, commented that not until she watched her father die three years later did she realize that the ending of the Fifth Quartet was a musical anticipation of that moment.

The Piano Quintet No. 1 dates from 1923, during the fertile period when Bloch served as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and also composed some of his greatest works. To me this Quintet, the Violin Sonata No. 1, and the String Quartet No. 2 are his greatest masterpieces. I’ve commented so often and at such length about the Quintet No. 1 that I’ll simply say, in summary, that the work picks up stylistically and structurally where such predecessors as Franck’s F minor Quintet and Chausson’s Piano Quartet leave off, imbuing that basic prototype with Bloch’s distinctive, extravagantly tortured vision of life. (I refer those who wish further elaboration to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.) As with all the composer’s chamber music masterpieces, this work must be played with tremendous physical power and emotional commitment, without which it just sounds whiny. Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet bring these qualities to bear, along with razor-sharp precision, more fully than any other performance I know, although the Aura Quartet of Switzerland, with pianist Hans Joerg Fink (Musiques Suisses MGB CD 6203), who offer both quintets on a single disc, provide a worthy alternative.