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Composer  Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) celebrated his Jewish heritage
through his music, producing pieces such as “Sacred Service,” “Nigun,”
and “Schelomo.” Here, the Goldner String Quartet with Piers Lane is
featured in “Bloch: Piano Quintets,” a CD released in 2007 under the
Hyperion label.

These marvelous performances of chamber music begin with “Piano
Quintet No. 1,” composed between 1921 and 1923. This three-movement
work uses a wide array of expressive techniques. These include ponticello
bowing (right at the bridge), sul tasto bowing (well over the fingerboard)
and col legno bowing (using the wood of the bow), along with quarter
tones. In the third movement, the pianist was instructed to “sound
like an exotic bird.”

The aforementioned celebration of Bloch’s heritage is identifiable here,
often a part of the rhapsodic feel of this piece. The quarter tones are
primarily used as a device to provide an Eastern European flavor. This
quintet often expresses a devotional quality, using cyclical elements and
recurring themes. It deserves more recognition, and was quite an “ear
opener” for me.

Bloch’s “Piano Quintet No. 2” was completed in 1957. This 19-minute piece
is much more concise than the first quintet. Although also in three movements,
it is less ambitious and rhapsodic, but not necessarily inferior. The difference
between these quintets lies in their overall harmonic treatment, which is
pared down and more “neo-classical,” versus “neo-romantic.” This piece
was Bloch’s last chamber work.

Between these larger “bookends” on the disc are three smaller pieces for
string quartet. The first one, “Night,” dates from 1923 and is beautifully
impressionistic, lasting only three minutes. It is followed by “Paysages,”
or “Landscapes” in English, a piece from the same year, consisting of
three short movements, and suggestive of different terrains all over the world.
Once again, Bloch’s writing is effective and evocative.

Bloch’s “Two Pieces,” are additional compositions from 1938 and 1950,
respectively, and round out this disc. Each piece is between three and four
minutes’ duration, without programmatic elements. They strike me as cut
from the same cloth as the two previous works.

I heard great performances on “Ernest Bloch: Piano Quintets,” with fine
recorded sound. I wholeheartedly recommend this disc as an introduction
to chamber music by this under-appreciated composer.

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