Bearing in mind that the Nash Ensemble have made a speciality of Blisss
early vocal works with ensemble - Rout, Rhapsody, Madam Noy, The Women of
Yueh - one might be forgiven for being pulled up short by a project to record
all Blisss other songs. Yet having sat through most of Hyperions
three day marathon recording Bliss songs one after another, I can report
that when brought together they underline a quite distinctive achievement,
and I feel sure the issued CDs will add an unsuspected new facet, an enhancement
of sensibility, to Bliss the composer for most listeners.
For me the highlight was "The Storm" from The Tempest, Blisss overture
to Viola Tree and Louis Calverts production at the Aldwych Theatre
in February 1921. The only other performance of this music since the 1920s
was given in March 1979 when Leslie Howard was the pianist, and the conductor
Leslie Head. But in the controlled atmosphere of a recording session, conducted
by Martyn Brabbins, Blisss writing for percussion and the role of the
singers were a revelation. Not least was the sheer, exciting, din created
by the performance.
In this piece Bliss asks for a large battery of percussion, including timps,
with piano, trumpet, trombone, and tenor and baritone as drowning sailors.
And that is what the ensemble literally does to the singers: drown them.
Tenor, Toby Spence and baritone, Henry Herford kept it up through a long
session, but in the end they had to call it a day lest their voices give
out completely. The rhythm is remarkably reminiscent of, though not quite
the same, as "Mars" from The Planets, then very new. But the eye-opener was
the enormous wave of drumming: I have always wondered why there is no
reminiscence anywhere in Blisss music of his actual experience in the
First World War, until the "Spring Offensive" from Morning Heroes a dozen
years after the armistice. Suddenly I understood, for what Bliss actually
depicts here is surely an appalling artillery barrage from the War, thrilling
but awful. And surely there must have been many in Blisss 1921 audience
who would have understood.
The other discovery was a much later work, the Elegiac Sonnet for tenor and
piano quintet, setting words by Cecil Day Lewis in memory of Noel Mewton-Wood
after the latter had committed suicide. First performed by Britten and Pears
and the Zorian Quartet in December 1954 it has been little heard since, possible
owing to its less than eight-minute duration. Toby Spence was particularly
What impressed about the other songs, some forty of them, particularly those
written before 1930, was their sheer variety and invention. Perhaps the biggest
discovery was the complete Ballads of the Four Seasons, though we have long
known Dorothy Dorows 1963 EP recording of "Summer", to hear all four,
beautifully sung by Geraldine McGrevy, was a delight. They are Blisss
other settings of Li-Po, and so in a sense an appendix to the now more familiar
Women of Yueh. We also had the late cycles A Knot of Riddles (Henry Herford)
with instrumental ensemble, and the Kathleen Raine settings Angels of Mind,
sung by Geraldine McGrevy.
The Nash Ensemble provided exemplary and enthusiastic accompaniments in the
instrumental numbers, and Kathron Sturrock was the hard-working pianist,
meeting the demands of Blisss varied idioms with appropriate style.
Hyperion, in customary style, are pressing on. Do watch out for it: something
Reproduced with permission from BMS News 78 p 181