"What do you think of Bliss, then?"
"Hmmm (groan) well, he wrote good fanfares."
The above exchange – an excerpt from a conversation
between two friends of mine – is a pretty good example of the general
attitude towards Arthur Bliss in today’s musical community. ‘Mundane’,
‘weak’ are also adjectives which are applied, along with unfavourable
comparisons with Elgar, Vaughan Williams and practically any other English
composer of the period.
Yet we would not dream of judging Elgar on ‘Pomp and
Circumstance’ and, similarly, there is much more to Bliss than initially
meets the ear and the pieces on this disc are a very good introduction.
Many think it is his earlier works which merit the
most attention. For my part, I am inclined to agree. Of the two string
quartets on this CD, it is the earlier work – the quartet in A Major
– that holds the most interest musically. It is a relief to find that
even though this was written during the years of the First World War,
it does not reek of death or – at the other end of the scale – patriotism.
It is not a complex piece; there are definite English folk references:
actually I find it reminds me frequently of Vaughan Williams ‘Folk Song
Suite’, although it is more chromatic and – to a lesser extent – Malcolm
Arnold. There is a feeling of familiarity about it that makes it charming
but which is lost in the other, later works on the CD.
The other string quartet – no.1 in B flat Minor – is
wistful in tone. Influence from France and America – where Bliss had
by now spent significant periods of time - is quite obvious in his writing,
perhaps unsurprisingly as it was also originally premiered in France,
along with compositions by ‘Les Six’ members Poulenc and Milhaud.
‘Conversations’ is my personal favourite from this
CD; strong writing for the instrumental combination and a very witty
programme (particularly the chairman trying to get a word in edgeways
at a board meeting) make this piece of apparently much neglected chamber
Performances on this CD are as good as one might expect;
the Maggini Quartet infuse the quartets with energy and wit – there
is a definite sense of fun about the way they approach the music. Michael
Cox and Nicholas Daniel play with the Maggini as though they have been
playing together for years. Cox’s tone is as pure as ever, not using
too much vibrato, which helps keep his line distinct from the violins.
This CD is a great introduction to a composer very
much underrated by the public at large – forget the fanfares, this is
a much better indication of who Bliss was.
Also see review
by Terry Barfoot and by