> Bliss String Quartets TROCD01412 [RB]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)

String Quartet No. 1 (1941)
String Quartet No. 2 (1950)
Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet
rec 23-24 July 1995, 4-5 Feb 1996, Bauer Studio, Ludwigsburg DDD - Dolby Surround - 20-bit technology
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 01412 [57.48]

Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa's Troubadisc label has a small and select chamber music catalogue. It spans several multi-disc series including Reger chamber works with piano and three cunningly arranged Milhaud string quartet/song discs. In addition there are four Ethel Smyth CDs (one in a double volume), and one disc apiece for quartets by Tailleferre, Grazyna Bacewicz and Gloria Coates (the latter complementing the recent Naxos USA release reviewed elsewhere on this site). Their Fanny Mendelssohn lieder series has just been launched and then there is this Bliss disc.

The First Quartet dates from Bliss's years in the USA. These years straddled the start of the Second World War when Bliss was in the States on a lecture tour. His return came about when Boult invited him back to a senior position in the BBC. The Quartet (which like the second quartet is in four movements) was premiered by the Pro Arte Quartet at UCB on 9 April 1941. The UK premiere was by the Grillers at one of the famed wartime concerts at the National Gallery, London on 27 March 1942. It was the Grillers who gave the first performance of the Second Quartet at the naissant Edinburgh Festival on 1 September 1950. They also recorded the quartet for Decca.

Bliss's string writing is very distinctive, harmonically rich and at times athletic. He does not veer into pastoral musing but he is often soulful. The First Quartet has many similarities with the Bliss's Music for Strings (premiered by Boult in Vienna in 1935). The music goes with a great sense of yearning passion and a swing. Once or twice I was also reminded of the Bliss Violin Concerto written for Alfredo Campoli and played with ferocious virtuosity by John Georgiadis in a 1975 BBC studio performance alongside the Metamorphic Variations.

The Second Quartet was said by the composer to be his best work in chamber music. He also wrote of his ambition 'to try for an emotion truly and clearly felt and caught forever in formal perfection.' He attains this in the hushed breathlessness of the brief sostenuto. This is the track to play to sceptics and 'non-believers' and I think it works a shade better on the Troubadisc than on the Hyperion. The first movement is rather unremittingly active but the vivo e con brio works well with some Italianate relaxation suggestive of Walton's violin concerto. This is a work of greater complexity than the 1941 work and I am not at all sure that it works as well as the more straight-talking First Quartet. The first two movements struck me as having been influenced somewhat by Britten.

The quartet includes Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa (1st violin) who is proprietor of Troubadisc, her husband, Friedeman Kupsa (cello), Mario Korunic (2nd violin) and Stefan Berg (viola). They were founded in 1986 on the occasion of the performance of Fanny-Mendelssohn-Hensel's String Quartet in E flat major and Piano Quartet in A flat Major.

The thorough and extensive Troubadisc notes are by British Music Society member, Meinhard Saremba. They are in German and in fluent English translation by George J Low.

The competition comes from a Hyperion disc with the Delmé (CDA66178). That was made a decade earlier in March 1985. The notes there are by Bliss's friend, the music critic, George Dannatt (also the dedicatee of Bliss's last major orchestral work, Metamorphic Variations). The Delmé tend to take things more slowly than the Mendelssohns - 12.02 in movement IV of the second quartet as against 9.49 on Troubadisc. The Hyperion plays for 64.44 against the Troubadisc 57.48. There is otherwise little to choose between them except in relation to microphone placement. The Troubadisc engineers seem to have placed the microphones closer to the players than the Hyperion team producing a more dazzlingly lit effect.

These are Bliss's only numbered quartets. There are two others (unnumbered) - one from 1914 and an incomplete one from 1923-4. It is a pity that one or other of these could not have joined the two here. There are quite a few early Bliss chamber works that surely merit recording.

Rob Barnett


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