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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Piano Quartet (1915) [15:38]
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1933) [24:25]
Oboe Quintet (1927) [22:03]
Maggini Quartet: Lawrence Jackson and David Angel, violin; Martin Outram, viola; Michael Kaznowski, cello. Peter Donohoe, piano. (Quartet) Julian Rolton, piano. (Sonata) Nicholas Daniel, oboe.
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England 18-20 December 2001 DDD
NAXOS 8.555931 [62:07]


The more that I am fortunate enough to contribute to these pages, the longer my list of worthy unsung composers becomes. This exemplary disc of chamber music by the British composer Sir Arthur Bliss has caused me to add yet another member to my roster of musical causes to champion. Bliss is a composer who to these ears strikes the perfect balance between sheer aural pleasure and intellectual challenge to the listener. Indeed, his is a fresh and original voice, akin to such sadly under performed masters as William Alwyn, George Enescu and Kurt Atterberg. One can hope that splendid performances like this one will carry further the banner for off the beaten path music.

Born of the generation of composers who came of age between the two world wars, Bliss knew sadness at an early age when his mother died prematurely. He would serve in the Great War, and the loss of his brother in that horrible conflict was to have a profound effect upon the young composer. One can almost hear a sort of catharsis in the works played here, especially in the fiendishly difficult and emotionally charged viola sonata of 1933.

Leading off the program is the sometimes lyrical and sometimes boisterous Piano Quartet. Often inspired by the work of great performing artists, the quartet was dedicated to the pianist Lily Henkel and her ensemble. This is a work whose two substantial outer movements are contrasted nicely by the brief and delightful Mazurka that connects the more passionate outer sections. Members of the Maggini quartet, whose playing I have heretofore praised highly in these virtual pages, acquit themselves splendidly in this lovely and tuneful work. Peter Donohoe, a formidable player in his own right, tends to be a bit too thunderous in forte passages, but on the whole helps to propel the music forward at a brisk and exciting pace.

Although it is hard to single out one piece on this fine program as being above the others, the medals must go to violist Martin Outram and pianist Julian Rolton for their simply breathtaking performance of the sonata. This is a tour de force of virtuosity, with some incredibly challenging passagework in the extreme upper registers of the instrument. Central to the work is the monumental second movement, which begins quietly with plucked strings over soft piano chords and unfolds into an essay of Dickensian proportions, requiring intense concentration and organization of thought on the part of the player. Up next is the monstrously difficult Furiant and if that is not enough, we are immediately lunged into a coda, no less difficult than the previous virtuoso showcase. Much more harmonically advanced than the earlier quartet, this is a work that at times challenges the listener. One simply has to concentrate hard in order not to miss any of the wonderful complexities set out on display, and repeated listening continues to reveal new wonders. Our duo plays with both abandon and control and gives us a marvelous performance.

The atmospheric Oboe Quintet is another complete winner, ranking amongst some of the most picturesque and evocative music to strike these ears in some time. The playing here is without fault, and the sense of nostalgia evoked by the hauntingly lofty melodies and eerily ambiguous tonal centers makes this a most endearing composition indeed. Most appealing was the frequent sense that time had stopped and that we were left only to relish the sheer beauty of the moment.

Once again, Naxos have proven that your name does not have to be Mozart to have produced some fine music. Their willingness to take risks continues to pay off, and one can only hope that more touring ensembles will be brave enough to program music such as this. This leads me to my chastisement of audiences to cease their lamentable habit of staying home when these sorts of programs turn up in their local concert halls. GO! Listen! And avail yourselves the opportunity to experience something not only new but sublime.

Sound production, especially in the latter two works is beyond reproach and Keith Anderson has contributed yet another enticing essay. This is not to be missed, and I for one cannot wait to experience the other items in the Naxos catalog by this very worthy composer.

Kevin Sutton


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