An intensely committed and HANDSOMELY recorded performance of Ernest Bloch's String Quartet No. 1 by the Pro Arte Quartet has been issued on Laurel Record LR-120. It is the first stereo recording of this work, and the first at all in about 30 years.
The 100th anniversary of Bloch's birth passed three years ago with little notice and still less accomplished to correct the wholesale neglect of his music. "Schelomo," the "Hebraic rhapsody" for cello and orchestra, is still about the only Bloch work most of us are likely to know. The Viola Suite and the two violin sonatas turn up infrequently; the first of the two piano quintets, despite the high regard it enjoys among musicians, is heard less frequently still. When the National Symphony Orchestra performed the Concerto grosso No. 1 in honor of the Bloch centenary it was a "novelty" to nearly everyone in the audience.
It may be unrealistic to think of a major opera house mounting Bloch's opera "Macbeth" or the Boston Symphony programming his "Helvetia." The neglect of the five string quartets, however, must be especially deplored, for they are among the finest composed in our century. While all five have been available on records in the past, the only one available here in the last several years has been No. 3, as part of the New World Quartet's three-disc survey of music by "Old World Composers in the New World" (Vox SVBX-5109).
Bloch wrote his First String Quartet in 1916, just after completing "Schelomo" (which is quoted in the Quartet's first movement). For him, he said, it was a time of "double crisis": The world was at war and he had just left his native Switzerland for America. More than later, when the world was again at war, Bloch wrote that none of his other works could be compared with this Quartet in terms of representing his personal Weltanschauung. The opening movement is brooding and introspective. The turbulent second movement contains a calm middle section inspired by Gaugin's Tahitian paintings, the third evokes a peaceful world by means of a Swiss pastoral, and the last, after citing material from the earlier movements, ends on an elegiac note.
Those who hear the First Quartet are likely to constitute an eager audience for the other four: The urgency, integrity, the sheer vitality and color of this music are hard to resist and hard to forget. It is heartening that Laurel plans Pro Arte performances of the rest of the Bloch quartets, and that Arabesque has announced a similar series with the Portland Quartet, scheduled for release this fall.
In the meantime, Laurel, which has set an impressive standard with this release, also has issued a disc of Bloch's two sonatas for violin and piano (LR-121), played by the young Japanese-born violinist Yukiko Kamei and the American pianist Irma Vallecillo.
These sonatas have not been ignored. Heifetz recorded both sonatas in mono (both are on Vol. 6 of RCA's "Heifetz Collection" ARM-0947), and both Isaac Stern and Elmar Oiveira have current stereo recordings of No. 1. But the new Laurel disc is more than a convenient pairing of related works: Kamei, who studied briefly with Heifetz, holds her own amid these illustrious versions of No. 1 and is outstandingly successful in No. 2, the long single movement Bloch titled "Poe me mystique." Vallecillo is a splendid partner, and the sympathetic performances are enhanced by exceptionally realistic, well-focused sound.