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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
CD 1
A Colour Symphony (1922) [33:08]
Things to Come - music from the film (Prologue; Ballet for Children; Attack; March; World in Ruins; Building of the New World; Attack on the Moon Gun; Epilogue) (1935) [20:13]
Cello Concerto (1970) [25:50]
CD 2
Adam Zero - suite from the ballet (Fanfare Overture: Adam's Fates; Dance of Spring; Awakening of Love; Bridal Ceremony; Dance of Summer; Approach to Autumn; Night Club Scene; Destruction of Adam's World; Dance with Death; Finale - The stage is set again; Fanfare Coda) (1946) [33:40]
Discourse for Orchestra (1957 rev. 1965) [18:28]
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1921, 1924, 1929, 1950, 1968) [12:58]
Christopher Columbus - suite (1949) [9:10]
Royal PO/Charles Groves (*Colour; Things to Come); Arto Noras (cello); Bournemouth SO/Paavo Berglund; Royal Liverpool PO/Vernon Handley (Zero); CBSO/Vernon Handley (Discourse); Malcolm Arnold (Two Pianos); CBSO/Marcus Dods (Columbus)
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, 27-28 September 1976 (*Colour; Things to Come); Guildhall, Southampton, 14-15 June 1976 (Cello); Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 19-20 December 1978 (Zero); Great Hall, University of Birmingham, 28-29 August 1979 (Discourse); De Montfort Hall, Leicester, 18-19 June 1970 (Two Pianos); Birmingham Town Hall, 3-4 September 1979 (Columbus). ADD.
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 5865892 [79:23 + 74:43]

With at least one work from each of Bliss's composing decades this collection cuts a broad swathe through the composer's working life rescuing often exceptional analogue recordings from 1970s. In doing so it presents some of his strongest and most memorable works.
The older duffers amongst us who experienced the quaintness of shopping for 12 inch LPs presented in their laminated card sleeves will recall them: Adam Zero from ASD 3687. The Colour Symphony and Things To Come by Groves from ASD 3416. In fact EMI offer us a nostalgia fix by reproducing the original LP sleeve for Colour Symphony on the reverse of the booklet. Discourse is from ASD 3878 (with Meditations on a Theme by John Blow and Edinburgh Overture) and ASD 3342 which included the powerful Noras/Berglund Cello Concerto and Miracle in the Gorbals. The Two Piano Concerto was issued on ASD 2612 with works by Jacob and Arnold. Miracle, Colour Symphony and Edinburgh have been reissued on CD before now as CDM7 69388 2.
Bliss’s music stands some way between the majesty of Elgar and the brilliance of Stravinsky; an over-simplification and a distortion but it gives a fair flavour, I think.
A Colour Symphony, weighed down with its programmatic associations with colour and heraldry was written for and premiered at The Three Choirs, Gloucester on 7 September 1922. The composer conducted the LSO. Groves’ recording was the second since the composer's 1950s version (now on Dutton). None of the commercially recorded versions is unrecommendable. You can try Wordsworth on Nimbus, Handley and Hickox each on Chandos with Hickox's being the most recent. Groves is not the slowest but gives the impression of taking infinite care with each phrase - allowing each note of a spasmodic rhythmic cell to register. This works superbly and the recording wears its thirty years supremely well. Woodwind sound honeyed, brass reach out in golden waves and the strings retain their sweet edge. The third movement Blue is lush with birdsong and pastoral repose - an unusual RVW-style moment for Bliss. Just as unusual is the Schoenbergian fugal element in the finale. Otherwise the accent is on an awed grandeur - the power of a massed force and a shocking agility and torque. A Colour Symphony is one of the great works of the British scene in the 1920s and none the worse for the not totally resolved voices of the enfant terrible on one side and Elgar on the other. Could anyone resist that measured tread and lissom theme in the first movement? It has the impact of the start of Elgar 1 and when Bliss was seized by the spirit such inspiration placed him high in the world's canon of composers. It was to grip him again in the John Blow Meditations with its paschal sense of peace and blessing.
On the same 1970s LP as the Bliss symphony was an extended suite from his music for the film Things to Come. It then benefited from research and editorial work by Christopher Palmer who provided new reconstructions. As we now know there was more to come as can be heard on the Chandos Bliss British film music volume. Groves captures every gramme of vitality and those horns and trombones are again magnificently rendered by John Willan and Stuart Eltham. Groves also makes us hear the terror in The Attack. There is the same element in what amounts to the foreword to the march; Bliss had served in France and his brother had been killed on the Western Front. Groves is a recognised master of the march and the superb march benefits from the contrasting ruthlessness and magnificence of the music. There is about this music a bitter Soviet determination and the Stakhanovite work-ethic in exceeding targets is there too. The raw-toned and roaring Beethovenian Attack on the Moon Gun is all that survives of the original film score performing material.
Two Finns stand at the centre of this recording of the Cello Concerto - the latest work in the collection. It was written for Slava Rostropovich and premiered at Aldeburgh. It is a considerable work but despite the emotional punch and the muscular vitality of both Noras and Berglund its memorability is of a less lofty order than the works of the 1920s-1950s. Fascinating to hear the recycling from the drums of a theme from the violin concerto in the finale and later for full orchestra at 4:40 (tr. 15). The gutsiness of the solo part surely shows the influence of Shostakovich's first Cello Concerto. Although not a matter of influence you can hear portents of Shostakovich in Bliss’s writing in Music for Strings.
The works on disc 2 are not as well known and the mass selling power of the set rests on CD1. Collectors however will bless EMI for collecting these recordings from hither and yon. It's just a shame they could not have fitted on the Handley-conducted Edinburgh Overture - a favourite of mine.
Bliss considered Adam Zero the most varied and exciting of his four ballets. This 12 movement suite presents 33 minutes out of the 42 minute score. It is classic Bliss and has much greater impact than the handful of movements the composer recorded for Lyrita in the 1960s. Surely Bliss doing some unconscious borrowing from Britten's Grimes in the upward-scoring strings in Dance of Summer. Dance with Death dredges up memories of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. The ailing Constant Lambert who conducted the premiere at the ROHO in April 1946 must have smiled at the Lambertian rhythm in the finale (tr. 11). The Fanfare Coda recalls de Falla's Le Tricorne.
Discourse originally appeared on an LP in harness with Edinburgh and the Meditations - the latter written for the CBSO who were recording it for the second time; the first had been in the mid-sixties with Hugo Rignold. Discourse is not top drawer Bliss but it still has plenty of the life force we know from the works of the 1920s and 1930s. Its original version was recorded in mono by the Louisville Orchestra and Robert Whitney and issued on LP LOU592. This reappeared on First Edition FECD1904 in 2005 (see review).
The Two Piano Concerto has a long and involved history and there is I hope opportunity for the work in its various previous versions to be recorded. The bright and gleaming Stravinskian dimension to be heard here call to mind another work of the 1920s: the even stronger and desperately unfairly neglected Walton Sinfonia Concertante. The Bliss Concerto is bright-eyed but lacks a strong profile. Had it been warmed over and reconstructed too many times, I wonder? It was first issued on an LP of two piano concertos by Arnold and Gordon Jacob.
Garnered in from an anthology of British film music is the three movement Columbus film music suite. Its central Grave is typically strong and dignified Bliss while the outer movements shine with Iberian life even if the final march cannot help but glance at the march from Things to Come.
The notes are newly written up for this collection by Andrew Achenbach and are an engaging complement to the music. All credit to EMI for not simply doing a cut-and-paste job on the original texts. I hope they will go back to Mr Achenbach for further work in this direction as he always writes well and makes those unusual connections which make reading his work fascinating.
This is a potent collection. EMI were always rich in Bliss material and we can only hope that there will be no stopping the company now.
They have been amazingly diffident about the Charles Groves’ Morning Heroes (SAN365) with a single CD reissue back in 1991 on CDM 7 63906 2 amongst the first batch of their British Composers series. Why is it no longer available? Then there’s the Handley/CBSO Blow Meditations, the latter a sequel of sorts to Rignold’s still superb Lyrita recording of the same work. The Meditations are no Meissen-fragile effort; no prissy neo-baroque fancie. There’s nothing of the ‘Let’s Dance Gay In Green Meadow’ smock-Tudor preciosity of some 20th century reploughings of this material. Instead we have a completely unacademic large-scale work of transcendental and visionary inspiration – an orchestral equivalent of RVW’s Tallis, fierce as well as tender.
New Bliss recordings are still possible as we know from Chandos’s 2006 CD of the Violin Concerto but what we need alongside forays into the vinyl realm is a recording of the large-scale soli-choral-orchestral epic The Beatitudes. That would be a recording premiere and a very adroit move given the work’s indelibly poetic-dramatic qualities. It was grievously overshadowed by having to share the same Coventry Cathedral celebrations as the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem.
The present set offers an unmissable and generous two disc collection - vitally essential Bliss.
Rob Barnett


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