> BLISS Quartets [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arthur BLISS (1891 -1975)
Chamber music

String Quartet in A major (c.1915)
Conversations for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Viola and Cello (c. 1918)
String Quartet No. 1 in B flat major (1941)
Maggini Quartet
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 19th - 21st December 2000.
NAXOS 8.557108 [64.01]


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Arthur Bliss is not normally a name associated with the "folksong" movement of the early twentieth century but the earliest piece recorded here (the A major quartet) certainly represents a great deal more than mere flirtation with that genre. This, perhaps, is one explanation for its later suppression, for it is certainly not inferior, in musical terms, to the other items. In fact, as far as this listener is concerned, it represents the finest twenty minutes on the disc. Even a superficial hearing would reveal a kinship with Vaughan Williams, Howells (especially the Phantasy Quartet), Moeran and, underlying it all, as with so much of Bliss's early music, the inspirational figure of Maurice Ravel. Even by the third minute of the first movement, marked Moderato ma tranquillo, there are echoes of the French master in the use of pizzicato string sonorities although the actual tune is pure English "folk" in its suggestion (if not derivation). The beautiful slow movement then travels across the Irish Sea to recall O'Carolan's haunting Farewell to Music although it also has an almost Elizabethan feel at times. The closing Allegro is also primarily wistful in tone and the quartet as a whole fully justify the Maggini's decision to revive it, a coup almost as significant as their revival of another superb but neglected quartet on their unmissable Moeran disc. For me, this music is up there with his greatest chamber works, i.e. the clarinet and oboe quintets.

I have to confess a strong preference for early rather than late Bliss, although there are exceptions. The aforementioned French/Ravel influence that pervades much of it is probably a key factor and the second piece on the disc, Conversations, certainly makes the connection overt. It is described as a "homage to Les Six" and I can definitely detect Milhaud in there. The unusual quintet line-up, in which the Maggini are supplemented by Nicholas Daniel (oboe and cor anglais) and Michael Cox (flutes), makes for some interesting listening. Three fairly light and upbeat movements are interleaved with two slower, more deeply felt sections. The first of these, In the Wood, has some gorgeously evocative playing in the high strings, whereas the second, Soliloquy, is a meditation for cor anglais alone. If, as a whole, Conversations, is rather uneven and pulling in opposite directions at times, it has some truly sublime moments.

By the time Bliss wrote his first "official" string quartet (the B flat major), in the States, during the Second World War, it appears that his model had shifted from French/folksong to the received tradition of Elgar/Walton etc (with the odd dissonance thrown in). While it is expertly crafted and contains some lovely passages it also shares, with many of his later pieces (e.g. the cello concerto), a tendency to sprawl. It runs to nearly half an hour in its four movements and will, I feel, be the piece on the disc I will be returning to least often.

So, in conclusion, I would say that for anyone collecting the Maggini/Naxos series this is well up to the normal very high standards in terms of musical content, recording and, especially, performance but does not quite compare with the magnificent Moeran and Bax issues. It is nevertheless highly recommended and the music it contains is certainly not insignificant.

Neil Horner

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