Swiss Early Modern composer Ernest Bloch [1880–1959] wrote five string quartets. They were written over a period of forty years from 1916 to 1956. The Second Quartet was composed in 1945.
A weeping solo violin commences the work. A second violin presents a counter melody and a duet harmony forms. The cello arrives to complement this languishing feeling and the violins respond to its presence. The cello is solo for a time, then the violins return. A pause ensues, then movement, as the instruments strike out towards their purpose, that is, to reach high while still showing restraint. Towards the end, there is a rise in dynamics but the mood is sustained. The cello delivers two phrases, and dialogues with the violins, which carry us to the end. This is a magnificent emotion-drenched movement.
The next movement opens with rhythmic thrusts and a deal of excitement. An ostinato develops and the rhythm becomes stiff and stilted. Finally, the violins prevail and express a short section together before moving on to an introspective passage. The cello steps forward and its resonance is a fine sound. Now there is movement, slightly frantic with a strong tempo. This train-like atmosphere fades and the solo cello reappears with gentle violin musings. The cello is the music here. An abstract phase begins to form with the violins varying their volume and slicing through the accompaniment. A short violin duet leads to a serious full ensemble sound to conclude.
A gentle pulse, with serene violins introduce the next, andante movement, so I am not expecting any rhythmic surprises. The twin violins lament at length, and slow to a sustained chord. The violins regather, but are more concerned with creating a funereal tempo than any melodic development. Another ostinato occurs and the violins are very expressive over the ensemble. Some rhythmic movement by the cello leads into a series of statements which are intertwined with the violins to produce a stunning sound. The intensity then drops away; the cello and violin continue, this time, with rubato intertwining, which is very different from the previous evocation. The end comes with a fade until nothing more can be heard.
The finale starts with a spectacular set of violin thrusts and pizzicato rhythms, over which the violins express dramatically. Now the full ensemble is evident and the mood is slightly random. A violin initiates an ascending motif, then develops it until it becomes fundamental to the music. The violins become more intense and a slight crescendo leads into a harmonic change. There is almost joy — which is not one of the composer’s defining traits — to be found here. Another motif-based ostinato develops before a series of duet violin lines lead to another crescendo. A pause brings forth sweeping violin melodies that move with the cello; this passage is full of unresolved tension. A quite frantic pizzicato accompaniment is overwhelmed by the violins, which repeat a melodic motif and produce a stasis. Long violin tones continue but there is no motion. The work finishes on a sustained cello tone.
As you have probably gathered, Bloch writes serious music. I’ve also noticed that he works in a limited dynamic range; his crescendos are quite controlled.
I’m interested in historical quartet ensembles, so my review CD was by the early Pro Arte Quartet. I see it can still be obtained from arkivmusic. More freely available however, is a 2-CD set by the Griller Quartet, which contains Quartets Nos. 1-4. They are also quite early; I have heard their set and can recommend it. The Griller is on Spotify. I was surprised to find several historical quartets playing Bloch on YouTube. All of the composer’s works for string quartet, including several shorter pieces, are available on earsense.
Listenability: Music of an extremely serious nature.