Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

SIR ARTHUR BLISS A Knot of Riddles, Angels of the Mind and other songs. Geraldine McGreevy (sop); Toby Spence (ten); Henry Hurford (bar); Kathron Sturrock (pf); Nash Ensemble conducted by Martyn Brabbins  Hyperion CDA 67188/9 (2 CD set) 122' 31"

Save around 22% with
the retailers listed alongside

The titling on this handsome boxed set is misleading: for it consists of nothing less than Bliss's complete songs, other than those early ensemble pieces, Rout, Rhapsody, Madam Noy and The Women of Yueh, previously recorded on Hyperion by the Nash Ensemble. This means we now have a couple of dozen early songs, all first recordings, which will come as a revelation if you have only known Bliss's songs from such late settings as the two song cycles on the billing. Indeed this is so pioneering a set, that, with the editor's indulgence, I think we should list them all, so that you can appreciate how indispensable a collection it is for all interested in English song.

CD 1: A Knot of Riddles; Three Romantic Songs (Walter de la Mare); Four Songs; Seven American Poems; Two American Poems; Three Songs by W H Davies; 'Fair is My Love' and 'In Praise of his Daphnis' (from the Serenade); The Tramps; When I Was One and Twenty.

CD 2: Two Nursery Rhymes; Elegiac Sonnet; Angels of the Mind; The Tempest; Ballads of the Four Seasons; The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House; Rich or Poor; A Child's Prayer; Three Jolly Gentlemen; The Hammers; Simples; 'Tis Time I Think by Wenlock Town; At the Window; Auvergnat.

Very few of these have been recorded before, so this is a notably pioneering and worthwhile issue, backed up by the sympathetic erudition of Giles Easterbrook's wide-ranging and informative 16-page booklet essay. As Easterbrook points out, by 1925 Bliss had composed about half his output of songs, and the youthful singers in this fine Hyperion team, Toby Spence and Geraldine McGreevy, respond to the freshness of Bliss's early invention, while the often turbulent piano accompaniments are played with suitable swagger by Kathron Sturrock.

Why has no one recorded the gorgeous cycle The Ballads of the Four Seasons before? This is lovely music which as sung here by Geraldine McGreevy immediately becomes a favourite often to be revisited. Bliss the enfant terrible, as he was widely regarded in the years after the First World War, may particularly be heard in an iconoclastic song such as The Hammers, a boisterous encore setting words by Ralph Hodgson, in which Kathron Sturrock evokes the inexorable rhythmic force of Bliss's imagery: surely memories of the war still overwhelming. Yet otherwise, in his early songs, Bliss is seen as a distinctive voice in a re-emerging English mainstream.

The big curiosity here is the music for The Tempest, written in 1921 for Viola Tree and Louis Calvert's celebrated production at the Aldwych Theatre in February that year, two years before Honegger wrote his prelude La Tempête, both in their day thought arrestingly modern. Here the two male singers take the role of sailors who are drowned by the waves of drumming which provides the accompaniment. This must have been thought startling avant garde in 1921, but for me it raises questions of the work's imagery, for in this storm we surely share Bliss's nightmares of the barrage on the Western Front. Curiously enough the sound on the CD is far more detailed and precise than in the hall, an analytical acoustic which tends to lose that overwhelming build-up of sound that must have been so striking in the theatre. It is still exciting and well worth having, if not for every day.

If the many miscellaneous songs here recorded are a revelation, to have Bliss's big things, the three important cycles A Knot of Riddles, Angels of the Mind and the Seven American Poems so authoritatively done is even more important for Bliss's reputation as a whole, and our assessment of it. Baritone Henry Hurford is eloquent in the shifting but highly emotional sensibilities of the Seven American Poems, written when Bliss was in the throes of deciding what to do on finding himself in the USA in 1940 after the outbreak of war. Here just once or twice I thought the balance over favoured the piano, as for example in the impassioned second song of the Seven American Poems, "Siege". In A Knot of Riddles, Bliss's late cycle for Cheltenham in 1963, written for John Shirley-Quirk, Henry Hurford's splendid articulation is essential in following the words. Here I was particularly struck by the colour and warmth of Bliss's instrumental writing as caught by the artistry of the Nash Ensemble.

I reported on the recording session for these (BMS News 78 p 181), and now, hearing the songs in quick succession on the CD one is impressed both by the quantity and the variety, covering as they do a span of sixty years. A rewarding and largely unsuspected facet of a name more often associated with the orchestra.


Lewis Foreman


Lewis Foreman

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links but you can also purchase from:

Return to Index