Bloch: Piano quintets 1 & 2/Kocian

Review by: Dan Davis

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

It’s an understatement to say that Ernest Bloch’s chamber music, especially concerted works such as his String Quartets and these Piano Quintets, has been under-recorded. So it’s especially satisfying that Ivan Klánsky and the Kocian Quartet are so attuned to Bloch’s idiom, playing with the often demonic energy and hushed mystery that jostle each other in Bloch’s music. The First Quintet (1923) is suffused with tension, opening with a driving, chant-like unison passage that gives way to a second, calmer theme. The movement seesaws between the two moods–agitation and relaxation–punctuated by extensive quarter-tone writing and glissandos used throughout the work. Bloch marked the second movement Andante mistico, and it’s pervaded by expectation and mystery. Praga’s booklet claims the movement represents a dream-like vision of a South Sea paradise, thus illustrating the hazards of imposing extramusical descriptions on abstract music. The final movement, Allegro energico, is the longest of the three. It is indeed rhythmically charged and passionate, full of wildness that gives way to a calming viola melody and an ending of resigned, austere simplicity. It’s a great work and Klánsky and the Kocians capture it well.

The Second Quintet dates from 1957. Also in three movements, it’s a terse, spare work almost half the length of the First Quintet. The ground plan is comparable: first movements are the shortest, finales the longest; there’s tension between fierce energy and meditative calm; Andante movements are marked by poetic lyricism. The last movement again is suffused with dynamic energy, but this time the piano asserts itself over the hyperactive strings to veer the movement into a different, calmer direction, an extended epilogue marked by a slow thinning out of textures and a serene close. The impression is of Bloch distilling many of the elements of the First Quintet into a more concentrated brew, as impressive a work as its predecessor.

In both works there are hints of the musical influences of their times: in the First, there’s an inkling of the neoclassic style taking root in the 1920s, and some Debussyian textures in the Andante; in the Second, we hear a 12-tone first theme and a hint of Bartókian dance-based rhythms in the Allegro. But Bloch was no trend-follower, and these works, full of originality and inventiveness, are stamped with his most personal style. This new Praga release should be in every chamber music collection.

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Recording Details:

ERNEST BLOCH - Piano Quintets Nos. 1 & 2

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