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Sir Arthur BLISS
A Knot of Riddles, Angels of the Mind - and other songs
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano); Toby Spence (tenor); Henry Herford (baritone), Kathron Sturrock (piano) The Nash Ensemble conducted by Martyn Brabbins
HYPERION 2CDs CDA67188/9 [61:46]; [60:45]

This is a long overdue assessment of Sir Arthur Bliss as songwriter. It is a magnificent collection of over 50 variously accompanied pieces - with piano and instrumental ensembles. Many of the pieces are in typical Bliss astringency; spiky works, roses with many thorns. This is music that demands concentration not only from performers but also listeners. Repeated listening is recommended to properly savour many of these numbers.

A Knot of Riddles for baritone and eleven instruments (1963) is a charming inconsequential work, full of fun and sunshine; and reverence. Henry Herford's mock solemnity is a joy and the Nash Ensemble delight in their witty and sharp evocations contained in Kevin Crossley-Holland's modern English versions of riddles from The Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon writings. One can easily visualise the glitter of sunlight on waters and scaly ones darting about in 'Fish in the River'. 'A Bookworm' subtitled (Hommage modeste à Maurice Ravel) is just that - an amusing Ravelian imagining of a grub twisting and boring its way through some thick tome. The riddles and their treatment move from the inconsequential to the divine with the 'Cross of Wood' through which Christ redeemed mankind and the lovely, serene 'Sun and Moon' - medieval images of divine and secular love.

Angels of the Mind, a cycle of seven songs, for soprano and piano, to verses by Kathleen Raine, was his last work in the genre written, in 1968, in retirement, for his own amusement and satisfaction. They are his most enigmatic group "a succession of doors linking the world of 'here and now' as Raine, put it, with the world of timeless continuity of future and present, reaching for the mystical while keeping a firm grip on the human, the humdrum." 'Worry about money' is a mordantly witty bemoaning of the lack of money and an unsympathetic bank manager. 'Lenten Flowers' wither sadly as Christ's Passion is remembered. 'Seed' is a beautiful, mystically reflective consideration of the "seed of life". 'In the Beck' shimmers as fish dart through its waters yet death as fishermen lurks in the shadows. 'Nocturne' is an exquisite creation with beautifully shaped parts for both performers.

Bliss's magical Elegiac Sonnet was written for the memorial concert, in December 1954, for Noël Mewton-Wood when it was performed by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten and the Zorian Quartet. Mewton-Wood will be remembered for his brilliant recording of the Bliss Piano Concerto - full of ferocity and insight. The eight-minute work begins with an extended piano solo (containing some of Bliss's loveliest lines for that instrument). The string quartet joins in as the tenor declaims C Day Lewis's apposite verses beginning "A fountain plays no more; those pure cascades and diamond plumes now sleep within their source…" A deeply affecting work, most movingly performed.

The Tempest is scored for two voices, grand piano, trumpet, trombone, and five percussion, four of whom spend at least some of the time simultaneously playing timpani loudly, and the rest on an assortment of gongs and drums in writing that demonstrates their capacity for force rather than finesse. The long opening instrumental section is loud and wild indeed and rather sardonic with so many brass raspberries that one begins to think this is some sort of army send-up, until the voices enter in increasing urgency and panic and you realise that this is all about a huge storm at sea. An impressive and imposing seven-minute concert piece.

Three of Walter de la Mare's poems were set as Three Romantic Songs (1922) for tenor and piano. 'The Hare' (regarded by the observer as the witch hare) has a very graphic piano part, the little animal loping and pricking up its ears but also having the capacity to arouse fear in humans - an eerily beautiful little piece. In contrast 'The Buckle' is a little nonsense that dances merrily along.

Four Songs (1927) introduces the violin as an additional expressive medium. In 'A Christmas Carol' it soars gracefully; and sinks to bemoaning fickle love in 'Sea Love'.

Geraldine McGreevy rises to the challenges of the demanding vocal line of 'Vocalise' with Leo Philips offering a rather saturnine pizzicato accompaniment. Galloping, grotesque rhythms and figures colour 'The Mad Woman of Punnet's Town'. Two Nursery Rhymes (1919-20) employ a clarinet as well as piano to support the soprano voice. The verses are unsentimental yet affectionate and they receive corresponding treatments from Bliss. 'The Ragwort' is an amusing grotesquerie, "like courtiers with crimson hats…" proud and bold and colourful against a grey sky; and 'The Dandelion' is cast in similar vein.

Seven American Poems (1940) reflect the emotional turmoil (never absent, never totally dominant as Giles Easterbrook succinctly puts it) of a Bliss, homesick and desiring to do his bit, when cut off in New York at the outbreak of war. George Dannatt claimed that these are 'the best songs he wrote for voice and piano and certainly the best of the song cycles." As Easterbrook observes, "Individually brief, they present the total mastery of cyclic unity he had been approaching for so long: as Bliss himself says, each carries 'its burden of vanished joy or beauty', reflecting Keats's observation that the world is full of pain, heartbreak and misery reaffirming life's potential, full of dark corners and passages and if we live and go on thinking we should explore them." 'Gone, gone again is summer' is a lovely haunting elegy for a fleeting season and fleeting happiness. 'Feast' is a world weary little song of somebody who had drained his cup but "I will lie down lean With my thirst and hunger'. 'Little Elegy' is another haunting love song - "Withouten you no rose can grow…"; and in 'Rain Comes Down' the piano lets it pour down disconsolately, relentlessly; chill and dispassionate while the baritone passionately enquires "And where is the voice that I heard crying?" Another eloquent piano part distinguishes the melodic 'Fair Annet's Song' that rues the transience of everything.

Ballads of Four Seasons from the Chinese poems of Li-Po move from the freshness and optimism of love and 'Spring' (a lush romantic song full of yearning for fulfilment) though amorous and sensuous dallyings in 'Summer' to thoughts of a parted lover far off in 'Autumn' and fear for his safety in a distant battle as she sews his tunic in bitter 'Winter'. A beautifully subtle Chinese influence infuses these delightful little songs.

The 'Humoresque' of Two American Poems (for soprano and piano) is darkly gothic. Its contrasting number 'The Return from Town' is sunnier - a more traditional number about country courtship. Three Songs (1922), settings of W H Davies, has two evocative songs 'Thunderstorms'; and the dark ghostly (Ah! Life and death, my fairest one, Thy lover is a skeleton!") 'This Night' with its penetrating owl cries. 'Leisure' is a busy bustling setting of the famous lines, "What is life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare." Two Love Songs, 'Fair is My Love' and 'In Praise of Daphnis' both have warm ardent vocal lines and decorative virtuosic piano accompaniments, the former with a hint of tango and the latter with some jazz influence

Of the other songs, I must mention 'The Tramps' a Peter Dawson type ballad, its heartiness tempered with a regret for times past; Bliss's earliest surviving song, 'T'is time I think, by Wenlock town' from a text by A E Housman, that is uncharacteristically firmly rooted in the comfortable salon tradition, and 'Hammers' a nice study in paradox the hammers of the verse busy constructing while the softer, slower yet no less insistent hammers of the second verse signalling the inevitable decay that follows. Finally, there is 'Simples' a lovely, pelucid setting of a text of James Joyce describing a girl in a moonlit garden.

All the songs are performed with conviction and enthusiasm. This is a 'must buy' for all Bliss devotees.


Ian Lace

Previous reviews: Lewis Foreman   Gerald Fenech


Ian Lace

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