Both Bliss and Bax were Masters of the King's Music.
They also had in common a certain affluence - an independence of means
- that prevented any suggestion of starving in a garret. Such a comfortable
background might well have brought musical victories that were all too
easy and too orthodox. In fact they each faced their own torments in
the shape of world wars and struggle in Ireland. In the case of Bax
there was the anguish of the loss of youth coupled with the glowing
and cooling ashes of the creative urge which until the early 1930s blew
in a strong and super-heated flame. Bliss seems to have had a steadier
hand though whether the flame ever burned as high as the peak achieved
by Bax I give leave to doubt.
Bliss, like Granville Bantock before him, was a gifted
administrator. He had this in common with his American colleagues, Mennin
and Schuman. Bax found such duties totally antipathetic. Bliss rose
to commissions as reliably as Britten and whether or not he relished
his ceremonial role he delivered marches, fanfares and tributes and
did so spiritedly and with a style that rang with Elgarian nobility.
You can hear this in the three fanfares that start CD2.
Bliss (and Decca) know something about spatial effects
(not just the extremes of right and left channels) and these ring and
echo around the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. Bliss conducts the LSO
in Welcome to the Queen and musters a snappy Waltonian manner
to match the In Town Tonight big tune.
There was another side to Bliss. This can be heard
in affecting works such as the Seven American Poems, The Beatitudes,
Music for Strings, Morning Heroes and the John Blow
Meditations. These are big-hearted and imaginative works stung and
sparked by the irresistible compulsion of the creator rather than the
motions of the dutifully skilled. He was not an enthusiastic symphonist
and adopted the medium only once - unlike Bax. His concertos were written
for the big names of the day and none of them ring totally true. The
Piano Concerto needs fiery nursing. Not so long ago I heard the only
version that made it sound at all convincing: John Ogdon in a 1966 Bliss
birthday concert. Ogdon was at that time fresh from another recording
triumph, the Peter Mennin piano concerto (RCA). The Violin Concerto
positively shone in the hands of John Georgiadis when given in 1975,
conducted by Vernon Handley. Other performances have failed to catch
or sustain the fire.
Bliss's theatrical side came out in two operas The
Olympians (the Polyphonia/Fayrfax revival of the 1970s was recorded
on Intaglio) and Tobias and the Angel (the latter for TV). He
wrote a clutch of film scores, the most striking and memorable being
for H.G. Wells' 'Things to Come'. The March is, as Kenneth Chalmers
says in his brief notes, more Prokofiev than it is Elgar. It is gritty,
not strong on remorse, even a little hysterical. Herrmann was a noted
Anglophile. Remember, he conducted the LPO in John Ogdon's Lyrita LPs
of the Cyril Scott piano concertos at about the time he recorded this
work. Here however Herrmann is rather too ponderous. Prokofiev and even
Stravinsky put in an appearance in Building of the New World.
Sibelius's At the Castle Gate from Pelléas et Mélisande
might well have part-inspired the Epilogue movement which
once again rather shambles along at this pace. Groves or Carl Davis
are to be preferred as alternatives although the gimmicky Phase Four
sound still sounds very impressive. The Theme and Cadenza is
highly romantic and Campoli, who also recorded the Bliss Violin Concerto
(available on Beulah though deleted in 2001), fruitily makes the most
of his opportunities. This music was originally written for a theatrical
production. There is quite a bit of Hollywood about this with the Sibelius
and Tchaikovsky concertos never far away.
Uniquely among the British Music Collections, this
set gives two versions of a work. The Introduction and Allegro
(Bliss's sense of humour to choose a title which will forever be
associated with the two poles of his stylistic journey: Elgar and Ravel)
was written for Stokowski and the Philadelphians. This work is best
characterised as a 'symphonic meditation in song' which, in Bliss's
hands, is driven a mite harder than the much better recorded Barry Wordsworth.
Wordsworth's suavely rounded I&A is from a digitally recorded anthology
first issued on Decca's short-lived Argo label. In fact CD1 of this
double is an exact copy of that 1993/94 CD. Bliss's strings in the I&A
now glare by comparison with the sleeker sheen of the Argo. It is fascinating
to hear the Finzian melisma of the opening bars and the sway and lean
of the nostalgic theme (07.48).
The Cello Concerto is a very late work written for
Rostropovich. Robert Cohen pushes the work along very well and it receives
its most beautiful recording ever. However Arto Noras's EMI recording
has more fire in its belly and of course Berglund is as good in Bliss
as he is in Vaughan Williams. [Speaking of which it is long past time
for EMI to reissue Berglund's RVW 4 (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) and
6 (Bournemouth SO) on one CD.] The Concerto contains material we later
find appearing in his last orchestral work - the massive Metamorphic
Lastly we come to the Meditations written shortly
after Bliss was made Master of the Queen's Music. It is a major piece
of work by any estimation - full of colour and fantasy and with an epic
symphonic momentum. I have sub-consciously bracketed it with Vaughan
Williams' Job but this refers only to incident rather than structure.
Just listen to track 10; the fight with Apollyon (from RVW's Pilgrim's
Progress) is also to be heard. As an example of Bliss's fantasy
try the Lambs scherzando (tr.8) and compare it with the
skip of the lambs in Finzi's Intimations of Immortality - a work
premiered four years before Bliss's Meditations. Bliss shows
himself the master of orchestration. Finzi did not have quite the same
skill and fluency though he was a much better melodist. Wordsworth makes
a shiningly dreamy job of In green pastures - very much a case
of the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. Several times I
was tempted to recommend Handley (if you can find it on EMI) or less
practically, Hugo Rignold on the old Lyrita LP. Rignold conducts an
edgier performance, tense and with a more rigorous sense of violence
and horror and his 1960s recording still sounds very well indeed. His
orchestra, the CBSO, commissioned the work in the first place and it
would have been in their bones at the time of the recording sessions.
The premiere was in December 1955; the recording sessions in 1965.
The Handelian pomp and flourish of the finale of the
Meditations recalls Britten's Young Person's Guide - a
work very popular during the 1950s. This splendid vainglory falls away
into the sort of string writing we find in the RVW's Fifth Symphony
with the leers, rattles and shudders of the 'Valley of the Shadow of
Death' and the shades of the firmamental violins putting in a skeletal
and regretful appearance. All is resolved in contentment.
The documentation is nothing to write home about and
the second disc is short on playing time at just short of fifty minutes.
However apart from the Herrmann (which has its moments) these are all
good performances. The Bliss-conducted tracks are valuable if dated
soundwise. The choices beyond the Wordsworth Argo disc are perplexing
though. We could have done without the Bliss-conducted Introduction
and Allegro and in its place we could surely have had the composer
conducting his Colour Symphony. The sound is past its sell by
date but no more so than in the Theme and Cadenza and the Introduction
also review by Terry Barfoot