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Hyperion recording session, Henry Wood Hall, 9-11 Feb 1998

Reproduced with permission from BMS News 78 p 181  BMS site

Bearing in mind that the Nash Ensemble have made a speciality of Bliss’s 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 Bliss’s other songs. Yet having sat through most of Hyperion’s 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, Bliss’s overture to Viola Tree and Louis Calvert’s 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, Bliss’s 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 Bliss’s 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 Bliss’s 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 eloquent here.

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 Dorow’s 1963 EP recording of "Summer", to hear all four, beautifully sung by Geraldine McGrevy, was a delight. They are Bliss’s 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 Bliss’s varied idioms with appropriate style.

Hyperion, in customary style, are pressing on. Do watch out for it: something really special.

Lewis Foreman

Reproduced with permission from BMS News 78 p 181

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