BLOCH: Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2; In the Mountains: Night; Paysages; Two Pieces; Suite for Viola and Piano. Suite Hébraïque. Suite for Viola Solo. Baal Shem Suite: Nigun. (2 CD’s)

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2; In the Mountains: Night; Paysages; Two Pieces • Goldner St Qt; Piers Lane (pn) • HYPERION CDA67638 (70:27)

BLOCH Suite for Viola and Piano. Suite Hébraïque. Suite for Viola Solo. Baal Shem Suite: Nigun • Karen Elaine (va); Delores Stevens (pn); David Amos, cond; London SO2 • LAUREL LR-864, ADD (63:52)

It wasn’t that long ago when discographic representation of Ernest Bloch’s chamber music—which includes most of his greatest works—consisted of largely mediocre performances, clueless as to the music’s expressive articulation and performance requirements. Even today, academic musicology and those whose education derives from it continue to remain ignorant of Bloch’s role and stature within the history of 20th-century music. However, as usual, record companies are way ahead of academia: Outstanding, deeply committed performances of Bloch’s music—including the chamber works—abound today, readily available for interested listeners, students, performers, et al. to discover, study, and enjoy. The two recent releases discussed here further contribute to this trend.

Bloch’s two piano quintets are among his greatest and most representative works. Composed some 34 years apart, they illustrate the evolutionary course of Bloch’s expressive apparatus from his early maturity through his late maturity. The earlier work is about 35 minutes long, while its successor is less than 20; the later work is less rhetorical, less hyperbolic, more concentrated, but no less intense, no less serious, no less grim in its emotional coloration, although both works conclude with a beatific serenity—a sense of acceptance, or resolution, that seemed essential to the composer’s world-view.

When I began writing for Fanfare, there was no recording of the Quintet No. 2; few even knew the work existed, and No. 1 was typically identified simply as “Piano Quintet.” Today there must be half a dozen performances, and the two works are natural discmates, as they appear on this Hyperion release. And most of these performances are superb. The Goldner String Quartet is an Australian ensemble, and pianist Piers Lane, though born in England, is also based “down under”—not the most obvious source for informed performances of the music of Bloch. And, judging from the photos in the program booklet, these are all young musicians. Their performances are brisk, refined, and technically acute, with no shortage of passionate emotional commitment—in short, they are fully adequate readings, and no prospective consumer, drawn to this particularly well-designed program, is likely to be disappointed. For comparison I selected the two recordings I have hitherto found most satisfying: the Aura Quartet with pianist Hans Joerg Fink (Musiques Suisses MGB CD 6203) and the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Howard Karp (formerly on Laurel LR-848CD, but now divided between two different issues, each with additional pairings; see for details). A close assessment finds the new contenders skimming over the surface a bit; more notable than that, however, Hyperion mixes the piano a bit too far in the background. I hasten to emphasize: These are very minor cavils—nothing like the kinds of deficiencies found in pre-1980 recorded performances—and only become evident in direct, side-by-side listening. But the Pro Arte/Karp renditions match power and precision to an ideal degree, and still loom as the best recorded performances of these works ever. The Aura/Fink performances fall somewhere in between—a little more bite and intensity than Goldner/Lane, but not quite the power of Pro Arte/Karp. 

Though they may appear to be trifles, the filler pieces on the Hyperion disc are not to be overlooked. Paysages, composed—as was the Quintet No. 1—in 1923, comprises three sketches, each associated with a particular geographical region: the Arctic, the Swiss Alps, and the South Sea islands. But this is far from travelogue music, as Bloch was not seeking to depict locations, as much as spiritual states of mind that he associated with those locations. As such they are rewarding on a deeper level than one might otherwise expect. “Night,” one of three short pieces—also dating from 1923—grouped under the title In the Mountains, is one of the mysterious nocturnes which Bloch was so fond of writing. This one is dedicated to his student Roger Sessions. And what could appear more “miscellaneous” than Two Pieces for string quartet, one written in 1938 and the other in 1950? But these are two highly expressive and very substantive, if brief, pieces—the first, slow and reflective; the second, vigorous and aggressive. Because they appear to be mere scraps, they are unlikely ever to attract much attention, but they are first-rate miniatures, as finely wrought as any of the composer’s string quartets, with subtle mood-painting and large emotional gestures. These short pieces have also been recorded by the Pro Arte Quartet for Laurel (on LR-826CD and LR-841CD), and, as with the quintets, their performances are marginally more intense and vigorous. But again, heard on their own, the Goldner performances are fine.

The new Laurel release (the company has built a considerable reputation for its fine Bloch recordings) focuses on the composer’s viola music. (I should add that although this is a new release, most of the music was actually recorded in 1990.) Much the same situation applies here as with the Piano Quintets: After many years of representation via mediocre performances, these not insignificant works can now be found on several recital discs in fine performances. Karen Elaine is active in the West Coast music scene, as a composer as well as violist. (She is also, according to the accompanying notes, an expert scuba diver and instructor!) 

Bloch’s major viola work is the Suite for Viola and Piano, composed in 1919. Winner of an auspicious award and generally well-received by critics, this composition played an important role in spreading the composer’s reputation. Bloch’s own instrument was the violin, and he expressed himself eloquently and naturally via string instruments. He was also a brilliant orchestrator. However, his writing for piano does not reveal a similar facility. He must have been aware of this to some extent, because he eventually orchestrated many of his works that originally featured the piano. In the case of the Suite for Viola and Piano, the orchestration followed less than a year later. This exotic, highly perfumed, but rather prolix work is far more successful with orchestral accompaniment, as its rich colors greatly enhance what can only be hinted at on the piano. The Suite Hébraïque was originally composed for viola and piano in 1951; its greatly improved orchestral version appeared two years later. From the standpoint of the consumer, if the latter work is represented here in its orchestral transcription, why not the Suite for Viola and Piano as well? I am sure that the answer involves various practical factors, finances among them. Nevertheless the question is sure to arise in the minds of most prospective consumers.

As the Quintet No. 2 represents a later parallel to its predecessor, the Suite Hébraïque may be seen as an analogue to the Baal Shem Suite, composed almost three decades earlier. Whereas the earlier work exudes its earthy shtetl origins freely and openly, the later one, while unmistakably suggestive of Judaica, exhibits a modicum of distance and reserve, suggestive and descriptive, rather than self-expressive. Elaine’s performance of the work is generally fine, more robust and energetic than Gérard Causseé’s performance with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Cascavelle (RSR-6170), although not without some minor technical blemishes. Elaine receives solid support from the London Symphony Orchestra under David Amos’s able direction. 

Elaine’s performance of the Suite for Viola and Piano is also generally good, fully grasping the spirit and character of the work. However, in comparison with Ernst and Lory Wallfisch’s excellent recording of Bloch’s music for viola and piano (on EBS 6044), Elaine’s intonation is not quite as secure nor her articulation quite as sharp, while Lory Wallfisch proves a more forceful partner than Delores Stevens in this very forceful music.

During his final years, Bloch composed a series of solo suites in the manner of Bach: three for cello (1956-57), two for violin (1958), and one for viola. He died before completing the latter work, although Elaine has provided a plausible ending of her own. Many commentators have waxed ecstatic over these works, proclaiming them the crowning achievements of his oeuvre, the ultimate distillation of his basic compositional essence. I have no desire to tear these works down, but I do feel compelled to state that I do not share this feeling, finding them rather dessicated and academic. Elaine’s performance is a bit more relaxed than Wallfisch’s, but reveals the same sort of technical blemishes found in the other works.

Perhaps the most interesting entry on this new release is the transcription for viola and string quartet (done by Elaine herself) of “Nigun.” Probably as frequently performed as Schelomo, “Nigun” is the second movement—and the high-point—of the Baal Shem Suite, although it is often featured by itself on violin recitals. The title Nigun refers to an especially soulful, passionate type of Chasidic melody. Like Schelomo, the piece presents Bloch in his most unrestrained, throbbingly fervent vein, and this is captured especially well on the viola. This selection was recorded in 2008, and is played on a larger instrument than the one used on the rest of the disc, further enhancing the vocal quality of the performance.