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Bloch: Landscapes / Galatea Quartet

Bloch / Galatea Quartet
Release Date: 10/11/2011 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 7950242  
Composer:  Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BLOCH Prelude (Recueillement). Paysages. From Jewish Life: Prayer 1. 2 Pieces. Night. In the Mountains 2 Sketches. String Quartet (1896) Galatea Qrt; 1 Jens Peter Maintz (vc) SONY 7950242 (62:22)

Ernest Bloch wrote a considerable amount of music for string quartet Read more under descriptive titles so that you would not necessarily know what medium the pieces were written for unless you heard them. Indeed, the very title of this album, Landscapes , comes from the second work on the disc, Paysages , a piece specifically written for string quartet. The one work on the disc actually titled String Quartet is an 1896 effort by the 15-year-old Bloch which is here given its world premiere recording. In fact, to the best knowledge of program annotator Alexander Knapp, not only has the piece never been recorded, it has never even been performed in public.

The curiously named Prelude, alternately titled Recueillement (Meditation), strikes one as a bit of a cognitive dissonance, considering that formally speaking the piece is not a prelude but a fugue. That contradiction, however, was probably not only deliberate but also revealing of Bloch’s state of mind when he wrote the piece in 1925, a day after his tenure as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music came to an end under, according to the composer, unhappy circumstances. No doubt, Bloch found an outlet for his emotional conflict by giving voice to his feelings in a fugue, which by definition means “flight” or “to flee.” This he did, quite literally, by moving to San Francisco, where he took up the position of director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the next five years. Many years later, Bloch wrote to a friend describing the Prelude as “intensely Jewish.” Knapp suggests that only due to its non-programmatic title was the piece mistakenly excluded from the listing of Bloch’s “Jewish works.”

Paysages was written in 1923 while Bloch still presided as head of the Cleveland Institute. The work was given its premiere in Florida by the famous Flonzaley Quartet. The work is a geographical triptych of musical portraits ranging from the Arctic to the Swiss Alps to the South Sea Islands. But it isn’t so much the physical landscapes Bloch paints as it is emotional and spiritual feelings evoked by these locations.

From Jewish Life was composed a year later, in 1924. The work falls into the category of Bloch’s corpus of “Jewish works,” among which are Schelomo and the Baal Shem suite. From Jewish Life was composed for cello and piano and dedicated to Hans Kindler, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. Like Paysages , the work is a triptych of sketches, only the first of which is presented on the current CD in an arrangement for cello and string quartet. Cellist Jens Peter Maintz takes the solo part and delivers it in the best heart-rending style of a great chazzan.

The Two Pieces were written 12 years apart, the first in 1938 in Europe shortly before Bloch’s return to the U.S. after an eight-year sojourn in Europe, the second in 1950 in Agate Beach, Oregon, where the composer had located in 1941 and where he lived out the rest of his life. Still, despite the dozen-year separation between the two pieces, Bloch tied them together by incorporating the main theme of the first piece into the middle of the second one. Both are dedicated to the Griller String Quartet, which did much to champion Bloch’s music.

The 1923 piece titled Night is not to be confused with a nocturnal work for piano titled In the Night written a year earlier. Like Paysages, Night was written in Cleveland and dedicated to the Flonzaley Quartet, which premiered it in Florida. Contrary to note author Knapp, who finds the piece a “melancholy, pensive, tenebral evocation of Bloch’s love of nature,” I find this short crepuscular piece purposely opaque and not a little disquieting in its creepy oscillating ostinato. The music doesn’t so much end as it just seems to stop on an unexpected harmonic resolution that doesn’t really settle the mood. I’m not knocking the piece—I rather like its weirdness; I’m just describing its effect on me.

In the Mountains is a 1924 diptych, its two movements meant to evoke, in the first instance, dusk falling over the peaks of the Haute Savoie near Geneva and, in the second instance, a folk dance somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Bloch, of course, was far from Switzerland and its mountains when he wrote the first of these two pieces in Cleveland and the second in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Finally, we come to the main business of the CD, a full-blown, four-movement, 30-minute string quartet written by the teenaged Bloch in 1896. The score is held at the Library of Congress. If pressed to describe it, I’d say it exudes the ebullience and stylistic characteristics of a string quartet by Haydn, and in a melodic-harmonic language that isn’t far removed from the Classical master’s. Just listen to the Scherzo, which is much more of a minuet in a courtly three-four time than it is a scherzo. But then comes the Trio section, which makes you realize how close Haydn was to Johann Strauss. Put on your waltzing shoes. This is an absolutely delightful work, worth the price of the disc on its own, but of course totally unrecognizable as Bloch.

The Galatea Quartet—Yuka Tsuboi and Sarah Kilchenmann, violins; David Schneebeli, viola; and Julien Kilchenmann, cello—is an ensemble completely new to me. Formed in 2005 and based in Zurich, this award-winning quartet is yet another chamber group to underscore my oft-repeated belief that we are living in a golden age of string playing. I see from the Galatea’s website that the ensemble has recorded a program of Beethoven and Brahms quartets, but it appears to be available only as a download from iTunes. If that’s the case, it’s too bad for those of us who still prefer to get our music on readymade CDs, for the Galatea is a quartet that needs to be heard by a wider classical-music community that I suspect doesn’t frequent iTunes as often as it does ArkivMusic and other CD mail-order websites.

In a word, these players are fantastic, and they seem to have a real affinity for the music of Bloch. We’re long overdue for new recordings of the composer’s five numbered string quartets. Perhaps Sony could entice the Galatea Quartet into the studio to record them. This is a superb sampling of Bloch’s music for string quartet in superior performances and a stunning recording. A must-buy recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Prelude for String Quartet by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
Pieces (2) for String Quartet by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938-1950; USA 
Paysages by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925 
Night by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
In the Mountains by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
From Jewish Life: no 1, Prayer by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
Quartet for Strings (1896) by Ernest Bloch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Galatea Quartet

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