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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ernest Bloch - String Quartets Nos. 1-4 (Griller Quartet)


Composer: Ernest Bloch

  • (01-04) String Quartet No. 1
  • (05-07) String Quartet No. 3 (I-III)
  • (01) String Quartet No. 3 (IV)
  • (02-05) String Quartet No. 2
  • (06-09) String Quartet No. 4

Griller Quartet
Sidney Griller, violin I
Jack O'Brien, violin II
Philip Burton, viola
Colin Hampton, cello

Date: 1954
Label: Decca




Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets are among the finest of the past century. The Griller Quartet recorded the first four in 1954, and incredibly, this is the first CD reissue of a set considered definitive at the time–one that has only gained in stature since, aided by the mystique of its unavailability. Also inexplicable is the relative absence of the quartets from concerts and recordings, although the Portland Quartet recorded all five for Arabesque, as did the Pro Arte Quartet for Laurel. The Grillers, at the time England’s leading string quartet, met the composer in connection with a 1937 London BBC concert of his First Quartet; they became Bloch’s friends after moving to California in 1949. They premiered Bloch’s last three quartets, were the dedicatees of his Third Quartet, and the composer helped them prepare his works for concerts and supervised these recordings.

Bloch wrote his First Quartet in 1916 at age 36, in the midst of World War I and his emigration from his native Switzerland to the U.S. It’s a massive work, nearly one hour long, its four movements encompassing a wide emotional range. The searching first movement’s drama seems almost tame alongside the furious second-movement “Allegro frenetico”, whose angular rhythms and wild ride to the brutally abrupt ending flank a slow, quiet section whose muted, ominous mood fades into eerie violin harmonics. There’s a dreamlike pastorale whose middle section is a vigorous, folk-like dance, followed by a long final movement that closes in a mood of resignation.

Bloch’s Second Quartet dates from 1945, and it’s hard not to read the anguish of yet another world war into its expressionistic aspects, dramatic conflicts, and driving rhythms. The Grillers are magnificent here, but in the haunting Andante movement they outdo themselves, perfectly capturing what I can only call “relaxed intensity”, an oxymoron that for once makes sense. At 23-plus minutes, the concise 1952 Third Quartet is the shortest of the four. It shares a sense of Beethovenesque struggle with Bloch’s other quartets, but it also offers a glimpse of the “American” Bloch in a third movement that includes a Western hoedown. The Fourth, written a year later, is bursting with energy and hairpin turns, moving from vigorously driven to peacefully quiet sections, this time with forays into atonal and 12-tone passages.

It’s a pity that the Grillers never recorded Bloch’s Fifth and last quartet, written in 1956, for their performances here are nothing short of superb. The ensemble is well balanced, the four instrumental strands perfectly audible; there’s a sense of “rightness” to every phrase, and we’re never in doubt about the players’ intense identification with the music. The 1954 recording was good in its day and sounds even better in this transfer, with a visceral impact freed from noisy LP pressings. Only a touch of the original’s graininess and occasional harshness in the violin’s tone in loud, high-lying passages betray its age. This set is a must-have. [8/30/2004]

-- Dan Davis, ClassicsToday

More reviews:


Ernest Bloch (July 24, 1880 – July 15, 1959) was a Swiss-born American composer.  Bloch's musical style does not fit easily into any of the usual categories; he studied variously with Jaques-Dalcroze, Iwan Knorr and Ludwig Thuille, as well as corresponding with Mahler and meeting Debussy. Many of his works - as can be seen from their Hebrew-inspired titles - also draw heavily on his Jewish heritage. He held several teaching appointments in the U.S., with George Antheil, Frederick Jacobi, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, and Roger Sessions among his pupils.


The Griller String Quartet was a British musical ensemble particularly active from 1931 to c.1961 or 1963, when it was disbanded. The quartet was in residence at the University of California at Berkeley from 1949 to 1961. It performed a wide repertory, including works written for it by Bloch, Milhaud and Bax. In performance they were sometimes joined by William Primrose, Max Gilbert or Denis Matthews. The Griller Quartet recorded extensively for Decca Records in the later 78rpm and early LP era.


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