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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Mêlée fantasquea (1921, rev. 1937 and 1965) [13’06]. Routb (1920) [7’24]. Adam Zero Suiteb – No. 2, Dance of Spring; No. 4, Bridal Chamber; No. 5, Dance of Summer (1946) [8’54]. bHymn to Apollo (1928, rev. 1964) [10’23]. Serenadec(1929) [25’52]. The World is charged with the grandeur of Godd (1969) [13’31].
bRae Woodland (soprano); cJohn Shirley-Quirk (baritone); dAmbrosian Singers; dLSO Wind and Brass Ensemble; abcLondon Symphony Orchestra/abSir Arthur Bliss, cBrian Priestman, dPhilip Ledger.
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Christopher Palmer’s booklet notes dwell on the influence of Stravinsky’s Petrushka on English music, going so far as to refer to a ‘Petrushka generation’ (which includes Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, Bax etc). If some of Stravinsky’s rhythmic prowess is detectable in Bliss’ Mêlée fantasque (a tribute to the artist Claude Lovat Fraser), it is even more marked in Rout, which begins with an unashamed ‘crib’ right at the very beginning before shifting to sound much more from these shores. Scored for soprano and orchestra, it was the last of three ‘experimental’ works for voice and chamber orchestra (the other two being Madame Noy and Rhapsody). The soprano is given various made-up words to sing and scraps of song – ‘Rout’ refers to revelry, and indeed there is much that is festive here. Rae Woodland sings clearly and accurately.

The third of Bliss’s full-length ballets was Adam Zero. The composer thought of this as his ‘most varied and exciting’ ballet score. The three excerpts here are full of life. The scoring of the Spring Dance sparkles while the ‘Dance of Summer’ exudes a healthy optimism, both contrasting with the more gentle ‘Bridal Ceremony’.

The Hymn to Apollo has a rather triumphal feel to it, a triumph born of huge suffering (it is given here in the 1964 reworking). It seems to be more experimental than the preceding works on this disc, with melodic lines fairly disjunct and Bliss unafraid of bare textures. In many ways it is the more interesting piece of the programme, simply because one can hear Bliss trying out new things – this gives it a raw edge.

Interesting to note that the Serenade is indicated as for ‘orchestra and baritone’ and not the other way around, an indication of the importance of the orchestral contribution. Two of the movements are purely orchestral – the ‘Overture: The Serenader’ (a nice Spanish suggestion with the use of castanets here) and the final ‘Idyll’; these depict the lover and his beloved, respectively. The second and fourth movements use texts by Edmund Spenser (‘Fair is my love’) and Sir J. Wotton (‘Tune on my pipes the praises of my Love’). The inestimable advantage of the present recording comes in the shape of the baritone soloist, John Shirley-Quirk, who is surely in his element. His voice is full and commanding, with every word expertly enunciated. He brings a real swagger to the finale.

The choral The World is charged with the grandeur of God was commissioned by Peter Pears for the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival. The text, also chosen by Pears, is by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The première was conducted by Philip Ledger, who also directs the present recording.

The writing for choir is superb (almost Waltonian in breadth and power). One could hardly ask for a finer advocate than the legendary Ambrosian Singers who sing with a lusty belief in every note. This is an impressive work, given in a recording of much space and depth.

The playing time is close on eighty minutes. Given the authority of the composer’s accounts of three of the pieces, plus the undeniable advocacy of the rest, this is a mandatory purchase for all lovers of the music of Bliss.

Colin Clarke

Sir Arthur Bliss

The Lyrita catalogue

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