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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Premiere recordings of the music of Arthur Bliss: Volume 1

Piano Concerto (1938-39) [34.33]
Adam Zero (1946) [26.03]
Solomon (piano)
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden/Constant Lambert
recorded in Carnegie Hall, New York, 10 June 1939 (piano concerto); world premiere broadcast on 9 May 1946 (Adam Zero)
APR 5627 [56.27]
Bryan Crimp’s renowned work in researching and making available historic musical events for CD takes an impressive step forward with this disc of the world premiere performance of Bliss’s piano concerto. The original acetate disc recordings are in the International Piano Archives at Maryland USA, repository of much significant archival material relating to the instrument. Despite unavoidable deterioration over the years it is possible to experience once again the thrill of the occasion from the discs, and where small parts went unrecorded (during the interchange between a pair of turntables) patching has been used from Solomon’s 1943 recording for HMV with Boult and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The shellac recordings of movements from Adam Zero come from the composer’s widow. Any hiss and crackle only adds to the flavour of the historical context, so in this reviewer’s opinion, the transfers are absolutely first-rate in both works and a tribute to Mr Crimp’s labours of love. He has also written an excellent appreciation of Solomon, called ‘Solo’, which I commend highly to the reader.

Bliss wrote the concerto to a commission from the British Council in 1938 for performance at the British Week of the New York World Fair in the summer of 1939. He had been a juror the previous year on the Ysaÿe International Piano Competition and came away highly impressed at the standard of virtuosity of the competitors. Clearly this was still affecting him when he wrote his concerto. It is an awesomely difficult work neatly summarised by Nicolas Slominsky as ‘Lisztomorphic in its sonorous virtuosity, Chopinoid in its chromatic lyricism, and Rachmaninovistic in its chordal expansiveness’. Solomon’s playing has unerring accuracy and confident abandon from the very start, and it is hard to believe that Bliss had to give him a gentle push on to the stage of a stiflingly hot Carnegie Hall because he was too nervous to go on. Boult is a marvellously sympathetic and supportive accompanist, and the orchestra play with a naturalness which belies what must have been unfamiliarity with the Bliss idiom. Later exponents of the concerto were Gina Bachauer, Trevor Barnard, Noel Mewton-Wood and, nearer to our own day, John Ogdon and Philip Fowke but it must have been a hard act to follow even this baptismal performance by Solomon.

Adam Zero is the third of Bliss’s full-length ballets (after Checkmate 1937 and Miracle in the Gorbals 1944), and in Wilfred Mellers’ view ‘the element of physical movement’ in the dance picks up with Bliss where Purcell left off … quite a leap in time. Adam Zero is an allegorical comparison between a man’s life and the four seasons from birth (Spring), maturity and marriage (Summer), middle-age and mid-life crisis (Autumn), to death (Winter). The immediate post-war years were not propitious ones for such subject matter (it had only 19 performances over two seasons whereas his two earlier ballets had 37 between them). Also choreographer Robert Helpmann infused little traditional choreography into the ballet (whose audiences are tough to please). The composer suffered a considerable disappointment with the reception of this work. Nevertheless, the music remains highly attractive (especially the Night Club Scene), especially in the hands of its dedicatee Constant Lambert. Lambert’s reputation as a conductor has always been high but is further vindicated in this world premiere broadcast of half the ballet (ten numbers). One can imagine listening to the wireless on that Spring evening over half a century ago.

Christopher Fifield

 

Ian Lace adds:-

I endorse everything that Christopher Fifield says about this performance. Solomon and The New York players under Boult give an exciting, inspired performance of this tremendously difficult work. The later Solomon wartime recording of this Concerto with a Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra comprising tired, ageing payers (younger more vital performers had been called up for service) is but a pale comparison. Playing devil’s advocate, I would not go so far as to say, as Christopher does that the hiss and crackle [and I would add, the sometimes furry, congested sound] on this recording "adds flavour to the historical context." I spoke to Bryan Crimp and he assured me he had done everything he could to clean up the original acetate disc recordings but the deterioration had been so severe that nothing further could be done. I advise less patient listeners to persevere, for repeated hearings only serve to confirm Bryan’s wise resolution to preserve this extraordinarily powerful performance as a vital historic document.

Equally important is the preservation of Constant Lambert’s vibrant reading of Adam Zero in much better sound except in ‘Dance with Death’. Lambert certainly knew a thing or two about conducting music for dancing, music for the ballet!

Never mind the quality of the sound in the Concerto, you will probably never hear more exciting accounts of these vibrant and dramatic works.

Ian Lace

 



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