Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Introduction and Allegro (1929) [12.10]
Cello Concerto (1970) [28.07]
Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) [31.25]
Antiphonal Fanfare for three brass choirs [1.34]
Flourish - Greetings to a City for two brass orchestras (1958) [6.29]
Fanfare for the Lord Mayor of London [1.44]
Things to Come - Suite (1936) [14.58]
Welcome to the Queen (1960) [6.31]
Theme and Cadenza for violin (1949) [6.15]
Introduction and Allegro (1929) [11.28]
Robert Cohen (cello)
Alfredo Campoli (violin)
RPO/Barry Wordsworth (Concerto, Blow, Introduction and Allegro - Wordsworth)
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (brass works)
National PO/Bernard Herrmann
LSO/composer (Queen)
LPO/composer (Introduction and Allegro, Theme and Cadenza)
rec 1955 (Theme and Cadenza, Introduction and Allegro - Bliss); 1959 (Welcome to the Queen); 1970 (Antiphonal, Flourish); 1975 (Things to Come); 1994 (Concerto, Blow, Introduction and Allegro - Wordsworth). CD1: DDD; CD2: ADD
DECCA The British Music Collection 470 186-2 [75.06+49.04]


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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 Variations.

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 and Allegro.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Terry Barfoot

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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