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Hyperion Records

CDA67638 - Bloch: Piano Quintets
Shades of Night by Nesta Jennings Campbell (d1951)
Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museums, Gloucestershire / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: February 2007
Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d'Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Amanda Hurton
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: November 2007
Total duration: 69 minutes 37 seconds


'A fabulous CD this, easily the best recording of Bloch's chamber music I've heard in years … the first Quintet, a product of the early 1920s, seems to combine the acerbic drive of middle-period Bartók with the kind of veiled sensuality one associates more with Chausson or Fauré. Bloch's use of quarter-tones, aimed at intensifying the work's already heightened emotional atmosphere, requires careful handling, and the Goldner Quartet make them sound both musically striking and entirely natural. If you need a sampling-point, try the finale's opening, where the sense of urgency will hold you riveted … the Quintet's quiet coda is rapturously beautiful and the blending of voices between Piers Lane and the Goldners simply could not be bettered … the music is truly wonderful, the playing entirely sympathetic and the sound perfectly balanced' (Gramophone)

'This new beautifully balanced recording in which Piers Lane partners the Australian-based Goldner Quartet has the edge in almost every respect … in the First Quintet Lane and the Goldners manage to communicate the urgency and immediacy of Bloch's musical argument with far greater fervour than their Czech colleagues on the Praga Digitalis release … most attractive are the three Paysages, depicting landscapes as disparate as the frozen Arctic wastes, the slopes of the Alps and the energetic exotic rhythms of the South Pacific islands in vivid colours' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The performances are superb! The Goldners and pianist Lane play with complete technical command and an emotional commitment to the works' (American Record Guide)

'This Hyperion release is not only perfectly compiled … but also brings, with the opening of the First Piano Quintet, music that is particularly striking and which also becomes compulsive … the middle movement is an atmospheric Andante mistico, melodic and spacious, strangely beautiful and full of Eastern promise, exotic and ethereal, the writing skilful and imaginative … a powerful and enveloping whole that is both intoxicating yet underpinned with logic … Piers Lane (a sensitive chamber music player whose concerto-soloist confidence and personality is a boon) and the Goldner String Quartet (a group of real distinction) give superb performances, deeply committed, vividly declaring without sacrificing good balance, attention to detail and a wide dynamic range, qualities brought forth by the excellent recording' (International Record Review)

'[Piano Quintet No 1] ranks among the finest in the genre … a work of astonishing immediacy, at once lyrical and aggressive, that takes you on a lurching emotional journey before achieving stability in the most serene C major imaginable … the performances, by the Goldner String Quartet and pianist Piers Lane, are tremendously authoritative in their combination of technical daring and expressive power' (The Guardian)

'In his two finely crafted piano quintets, we find sonata form mingling with quarter-tones and an identifiably Jewish lyricism: very engaging, especially in these performances from Lane and the Goldner String Quartet' (Financial Times)

'Start with the Andante mistico of the First Quintet and you'll discover real intensity in expression and music that borders on the religious in its devoted strength … presented with such vigour and playful ease, particularly by Piers Lane … all essential listening, but the musically most rewarding works here are without doubt the two piano quintets, which I will return to time and time again, not least for the brilliant Piers Lane' (Pianist)

Piano Quintets
Agitato  [8'39]
Andante mistico  [11'09]
Allegro energico  [14'09]
Andante moderato  [3'52]
Allegro molto  [3'27]
Animato  [4'52]
Andante  [6'00]
Allegro  [7'50]

Serenity and meditation contrast with melancholy and savagery; primitive passions yield to poignancy, nobility and tenderness in Bloch’s accomplished chamber music. Five substantial pieces are recorded here, dating from different stages of the composer’s career and demonstrating both the programmatic elements of his writing and his Impressionistic side. Bloch’s deep affinity for string instruments and the piano is also given ample expression in these works, all of which deserve a permanent place in the chamber music repertoire. They are given performances of great vitality and sensitivity by the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ernest Bloch composed chamber music throughout his life. In addition to duos for voice, violin, viola, cello, flute and trumpet, all with piano accompaniment, he wrote one piano trio, five substantial string quartets, several smaller pieces for string quartet, and two piano quintets.

Bloch had learned the violin from an early age, and showed such promise during his student years that he would doubtless have become a professional performer had not Eugène Ysaÿe—his teacher and mentor at the Brussels Conservatoire from 1896 to 1899—sensed a profound talent for composition in his teenage pupil, and encouraged him to pursue this path instead. Though writing music became his primary focus, Bloch continued to nurture his abilities as a violinist, and later became an accomplished pianist as well. His deep affinity for string instruments and the piano is given ample expression in the five works on this recording, three of which date from his years as Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music (which he founded in 1920), and two of which were completed during his American West Coast period.

The Piano Quintet No 1 was completed in March 1923 after two years of arduous effort. It had originally been conceived as a three-movement sonata for cello and piano, incorporating some themes that Bloch had created during his childhood; but it was shelved while he was working on the second movement. Having almost destroyed the mass of accumulated sketches in a moment of depression, he came to the realization that a larger framework could successfully accommodate his expanding ideas; and the medium of string quartet plus piano—with the piano as ensemble instrument rather than solo—was selected. The result was a work of epic dimensions lasting over half an hour, and comprising three movements: Agitato, leading without pause into Andante mistico, and finally Allegro energico. The premiere was given by Harold Bauer and the Lenox Quartet during the inaugural concert of the League of Composers in New York on 11 November 1923.

Introduced at the very outset of the first movement is one of the distinctive features of this work that has provoked a great deal of discussion among commentators and scholars, namely the composer’s use of quarter-tones. Bloch made a special point of emphasizing that his intention—so far from creating a quarter-tone ‘system’—was rather to inflect, upwards or downwards, the existing diatonic and chromatic intervals of standard Western keys and scales, in order to intensify even further the enormous range of emotions with which the quintet is replete.

The opening pages of the work contain the motivic materials upon which the entire quintet is based. Thus, as in most of Bloch’s multi-movement compositions, the overall form is cyclic. Some of the motifs are simple and narrow in range, whereas others, by contrast, are more complex and cover a wider gamut; but all are short and succinct, and all are subjected to extensive development—melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.

The first movement is a vigorous essay in a modified sonata form. There are six main ideas, from which further material is generated: (i) a brooding phrase no wider than a minor third that moves tightly around the tonic C at its first appearance on the piano; (ii) a crisply angular figure comprising intervals of the fourth and seventh also pivoting around C and introduced by the strings; (iii) a sweeping lyrical melody that is first heard on the strings in their highest register; (iv) a subdued motif first presented by the viola; (v) a slowly rising chromatic figure played by viola and cello in octaves; and (vi) a dramatic quaver motif first heard in the piano in triple octaves, then harmonized in consecutive root-position triads, and subsequently in bare fifths. It is with this figure that the movement ends.

The second movement opens with motif (ii) from the first movement. Here, however, the dissonant interval of the major seventh is expanded into an octave. This consonance, together with the establishment of a gentler tempo, has the effect of transforming its formerly violent character into one of tenderness. This kind of dramatic metamorphosis is typical in Bloch’s cyclic method. There are several other prominent motifs: (vii) a repeated rising fourth first heard in the cello; (viii) a descending figure also played for the first time by the cello; (ix) a plaintive gesture comprising an upward arpeggio ending with repeated quarter-tone inflections appearing on the first violin; (x) two adjacent motifs reminiscent of material in Bloch’s Schelomo (a rhapsody for cello and orchestra of 1916); and finally (xi) an idea, in quasi-Lydian mode, similar to those in other works of Bloch that evoke the folk idiom of his native Switzerland.

The finale opens with a powerfully rhythmical metamorphosis of motif (i) from the first movement; and motif (ii) appears later in the movement. New material takes several forms: (xii) a triadic motto theme suggestive of an Alpine horn call, first heard on viola and cello; (xiii) a slower-moving, heavily accented motif designated barbarico in the score; (xiv) a spiky theme in dotted notes in the piano; and (xv) an expansive lyrical motif mainly in the whole-tone scale, apparently derived from a Caribbean chant. Towards the end there is a long passage based on the notes D and A in the bass register which eventually resolve to tonic C; and it is on this major chord that the work peacefully concludes. In the words of the British critic Ernest Newman: ‘There is no more welcome, more impressive, more clinching, more conclusive, more authoritative C major chord in all music.’ This key carried special spiritual connotations for Bloch; and in this context, it serves to resolve the harmonic ambiguities found in the main body of this work.

Apart from differences in tempo, the three movements exhibit remarkable similarities in terms of technique and style. In each can be found melodies constructed from small cells, accumulated in upward or downward sequences, then imitated, inverted and ornamented in a multiplicity of ways. Gritty motifs contrast with soaring solos. Some of the string writing is contrapuntal, where two or more primary themes may be combined; other passages are written in unisons and octaves, or with the support of sustained chords and drones. Special features include rapidly repeated notes, double and triple stopping, harmonics, use of mutes, sul ponticello and sul tastiera, col legno, glissando, and pizzicato strumming. The overall sonority is often that of a string orchestra rather than a quartet. The piano part is similarly demanding, many passages requiring virtuoso skills. Arabesques, tremolos, ostinatos and hammered chords all take their place alongside lyrically expressive cantabile writing. A section of the finale contains a motif featuring acciaccaturas in which Bloch encourages the pianist to sound ‘like an exotic bird’. Tonalities and modalities fluctuate and are sometimes left undefined through the use of open fifths and octaves and whole-tone harmony. Simple diatonic triads are often superimposed in unusual combinations. Rhythms are sometimes freely rhapsodic, sometimes trenchant; and syncopations and other cross-rhythms abound. However, the ‘Scotch snap’, so frequent in many Bloch works, is largely absent here. Moods are extreme, and they change dramatically—sometimes with little or no warning. Serenity and meditation contrast with melancholy and savagery; primitive passions yield to poignancy, nobility and tenderness. Bloch’s independence of spirit is vividly expressed in the statement he made about his quintet: ‘I write without any regard to please either the so-called “ultra-moderns” or the so-called “old-fashioned”.’ And though he neither applied a ‘programme’ to this quintet nor categorized it among his ‘Jewish’ works, there are distinct resonances with earlier compositions such as the Israel Symphony, Schelomo, and the String Quartet No 1.

Bloch wrote several Impressionistic miniatures for string quartet during the 1920s. Night and Paysages (Landscapes) were written in Cleveland between 8 and 13 December 1923; and the premiere of these works was given by the Flonzaley Quartet in Florida in February 1924. Night is similar in mood and style to his other ‘nocturnal’ works, for example the slow movement of the Viola Suite (1919), In the Night (a ‘Love Poem’ for piano, 1922, also in an orchestral version), Nuit exotique for violin and piano (1924) and Three Nocturnes for piano trio (1924). It is a tenebral evocation of Bloch’s love of nature, with limpid melodies, oscillating accompanimental figurations, and gently pulsating rhythms. This work, too, ends with a magical chord of C major. The dedicatee is the American composer Roger Sessions (1896–1985), one of Bloch’s most illustrious pupils.

Depiction of the natural world is again the focus in Paysages (Landscapes), but here the geographical locations of each of the three contrasting movements are clearly delineated: the frozen wastes of the Arctic, the lush vegetation of the Alpine landscape, and the pulsating energy of life as lived in the islands of the South Pacific.

Ever since his youth, Bloch had been fascinated by the ‘exotic’. For example, as a child he had read legends about the Incas that made an indelible impression upon him, according to his own testimony. When, in his early twenties, he came to know the celebrated music critic Robert Godet, he was spellbound by the older man’s personal descriptions of Java, Sumatra and Borneo. When preparing lectures for the Geneva Conservatoire between 1911 and 1916, he researched collections of traditional music from Africa and the Arctic regions. Bloch never had the opportunity to visit such places, and this caused him much frustration and regret. However, following his arrival in New York in 1916, he was able to travel extensively throughout the New World, and gradually developed a strong affinity for Native American cultures from every part of the continent. All of these—as well as the more familiar Jewish influences—inspired Bloch; and as a result he incorporated into his compositions motifs, melodies, rhythms and textures typical of these widely separated ethnicities.

North (Moderato molto), the first movement of Paysages, was inspired by Robert Flaherty’s film about Eskimo life, Nanook of the North. Bloch was overwhelmed by the vivid images portrayed—to the extent that he was unable to sleep after the showing. In one hour, in the middle of the night, he completed North. This has been described by one commentator as ‘a study in pianissimo’, descriptive of the bleakness and desolation of icy wastes. Against a backdrop of frequently repeating quavers in groups of four and three respectively, marked ‘without expression’ at the beginning (the time-signature of this movement is mainly 7/8), motifs comprising oscillating semitones or augmented seconds are occasionally interrupted by phrases covering much wider intervals.

Switzerland, the country of Bloch’s birth, was a further source of inspiration to the composer; and again, motifs from the Swiss folk repertoire find their way into many of his works, including the middle movement of Paysages: Alpestre (Allegretto). This pastoral essay is altogether warmer and more lyrical. There are four main ideas: the opening melody on viola that swoops low then high, rather as a bird in flight; a tighter motif of narrow compass that suggests the Lydian mode, also introduced by viola; an ornamented phrase on the first violin; and a passage marked misterioso played by all four instruments.

The finale is entitled Tongataboo (Allegro) and evokes the pounding dance and percussion traditions of the island of Tongatapu in the Tongan archipelago. There are striking rhythmical similarities here with the finale of the Piano Quintet No 1. Apart from several secondary motifs, there is one prominent theme that first appears on the first violin soon after the beginning, and is then repeated throughout the movement. This work was dedicated ‘to my dear friend Carl Engel’, the American musicologist (1883–1944).

The first of the Two Pieces for string quartet (Andante moderato) was completed in Châtel, Haute-Savoie, on 7 November 1938—some two months prior to Bloch’s return to the USA after eight years in Europe. The second (Allegro molto) was finished nearly twelve years later in Agate Beach, Oregon, on 4 October 1950. They are dedicated to the Griller String Quartet, ardent champions of Bloch’s chamber music both in their native United Kingdom and abroad. These short movements, based on motifs appearing in sketches that date from much earlier in Bloch’s life, have been described as ‘studies’ for the larger String Quartets Nos 2–5 that he composed respectively in 1945, 1952, 1953 and 1956.

The first piece is typical of Bloch’s lyrical style. Elements of counterpoint alternate with chordal passages; and the chromaticisms are always conceived within the context of tonality or modality. A relatively calm mood at the beginning and at the end contrasts with the violent intensity of the middle portion of the movement, the main theme of which recurs in the middle of the second piece, a vigorous perpetuum mobile in 6/8 time. Here, aside from a brief respite about half way through, the momentum is maintained by the use of rapidly repeated notes and chords, accents, and rhythms of ‘two against three’. Whereas the first piece ends quietly in low register in Bloch’s meditative key of C major, the second concludes fortissimo in high tessitura with a passage in the Lydian and Phrygian modes on B. Unlike Night and Paysages, the Two Pieces appear to have no directly programmatic intent.

The Piano Quintet No 2, composed between February and July 1957, was the last piece of chamber music that Bloch wrote. He was already suffering from the colonic cancer to which he finally succumbed two years later, and had been unsure as to whether he would live long enough to complete the commission received from the Music Department of the University of California at Berkeley to contribute a work for the inauguration of the Alfred Hertz Memorial Hall of Music during the May T Morrison Festival in 1958. Bloch was characteristically determined to honour this invitation, especially as he had had a close relationship with Berkeley; and indeed, of the six composers invited to join in this project (the others being Arthur Bliss, Darius Milhaud, Roger Sessions, William O Smith, and Randall Thompson), his was the first work to be submitted. The premiere was given by Marjorie Petray and the Griller Quartet in the Hertz Hall on 15 April 1958.

The opening movement, Animato, begins energetically with a four-bar introduction leading to the first of several themes, two of which are dodecaphonic tone rows. However, as with his quarter-tones, Bloch had no intention of creating or following a ‘system’. In fact, he eschewed ‘serial’ composition, preferring, rather, to use all twelve semitones of the chromatic scale within a tonal/modal context. In this work he emphasized his individual approach by inserting into the first row two extra notes, a perfect fifth apart. Elsewhere, there are tritones in abundance, wide leaps alternating with scalic contours, motifs and harmonic progressions assembled in an ever-rising sequence, passages of gritty homophony juxtaposed with flowing polyphony, dissonances resolving into consonances, and an exploration of the entire dynamic range—tending, however, more to forte than to piano.

The slow movement, Andante, offers a further example of Bloch’s love of the mystical, the lyrical, and the pastoral. It is an air with variations, beginning in C sharp minor, replete with oscillating triplet figurations in the piano part, and mellifluous counterpoint in the strings. Shortly before the climax near the end of the movement there are two passages that are reminiscent of prominent motifs from Schelomo and the Suite hébraïque.

Following without a break is the finale, Allegro, characterized by its motoric drive. Much of the writing is similar to that of the first movement. However, after a series of cascading scales, the mood changes and the tempo broadens into the concluding Calmo section which brings the work to a close—pianissimo—in the key of E major.

The second quintet resembles the first, insofar as each comprises three movements contrasting in tempo, and each explores a vast palette of emotions, textures and sonorities—although, admittedly, there are no instructions in the second quintet to evoke exotic birds. However, over the period of three-and-a-half decades that separates the quintets, Bloch’s compositional style changed dramatically, and this is reflected in the differences of dimension and ethos of each work. The first is panoramic in its proportions, whereas the second is concentrated and concise. Furthermore, there is more of Bloch the ‘neo-romantic’ in the first, and more of Bloch the ‘neo-classicist’ in the second. However, the consensus of opinion among commentators that the second quintet is more ‘detached’, ‘sober’, ‘abstract’ and ‘objective’ than the first must be seriously challenged.

Bloch’s last years were spent in relative seclusion on the Oregon coast, his poor health allowing him to travel only rarely. Yet the vitality of most of the works he composed in his mid- to late-seventies reveals a strength of spirit and creativity that might rival that of a man half his age. The two piano quintets make mutually enriching companions and, together with the quartet pieces, deserve a permanent place in the chamber music repertoire.

Alexander Knapp © 2007

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