This CD, sponsored
by the Bliss Trust is the second release
in Peter Donohoe’s series, British
Piano Concertos for Naxos. Its appearance
prompts two questions. Why do we hear
so little of the music of Bliss, especially
in our concert halls? Equally, why has
this fine British pianist made so few
discs in recent years?
I suspect the answer
to the second question is that Donohoe
has been a victim of the record industry’s
obsession with bright young artists
rather than serious, less flashy musicians.
So after the excitement of his success
in the 1982 Moscow International Tchaikovsky
Competition had receded the record companies
probably lost interest in him. All credit,
therefore, to Naxos for recording him
The first question
is not quite so easy to answer. Like
many composers, Bliss’s output is uneven
but at his finest he wrote excellently
crafted, eloquent music, usually underpinned
by memorable thematic material. Unfortunately,
much of his music was founded in a romantic
vein, which had become desperately unfashionable
by the 1960s and many concert promoters
and record companies consigned Bliss,
like so many other composers of his
generation (not just British ones),
This fine disc illustrates
what we have been missing through neglect
of Bliss and through Peter Donohoe’s
infrequent visits to the recording studio.
The work that was new
to me was the Concerto for Two Pianos.
(I’m unsure if it has been recorded
before though Naxos don’t claim this
as a first recording.) In his excellent
and informative notes Andrew Burn explains
that the origins of this piece lie in
a 1921 Concerto for piano, tenor
and strings, now lost (how, one
wonders did the singer fit in to such
music?) Bliss revised it as a work for
two pianos with accompaniment of wind,
brass and percussion in 1924 and he
fully orchestrated that work for the
1929 Proms. What is recorded here is
yet another revision of it, dating from
1950. It plays continuously though its
three sections are clearly defined.
The first part, Allegro giusto
is all bustle and energy. At 4’23"
the larghetto tranquillo begins.
For much of this section the pianos
decorate what the orchestra is playing.
In a 1924 programme note, quoted by
Andrew Burn, Bliss felicitously described
the solo pianos in this element of the
work as "two great arabesque-making
machines." A short climax leads
(at 7’43") to the concluding Vivo,
which is another driving, brilliant
piece of display. There’s a somewhat
brittle quality to the two faster sections
(and I don’t use the term pejoratively).
In the central part we glimpse the warm,
lyrical side of Bliss’s muse. Messrs.
Donohoe and Roscoe give a fine, extrovert
account of the concerto, ably supported
by David Lloyd-Jones and his orchestra.
In between the two
concerted works comes the sonata that
Bliss wrote for the brilliant young
Australian pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood.
This composition was a direct result
of Bliss’s admiration for the performances
that the pianist had given of his Piano
review]. It’s an interesting work
though I don’t find it speaks to me
in quite the same way that the Piano
Concerto does. It has been recorded
at least twice before, by Phillip Fowke
and by Eric Parkin (both for Chandos).
As Andrew Burn puts it, the first movement
has a "relentless driving force"
and I think Peter Donohoe is just the
man for this. He offers strong playing
but never forces the music unduly. There’s
a more fluid middle section, which he
plays with grace but still with a sense
of purposeful forward movement. After
the opening material has been reprised
the eerie quiet end is quite unexpected
and Donohoe does this passage with atmosphere
and feeling. There are some forceful
passages in the second movement, which
is a set of variations. Donohoe gives
these parts the right amount of weight
but he’s equally convincing in the more
reflective music. The finale is dashing
and propulsive. It sounds as if the
music must bristle with technical difficulties
but Donohoe’s virtuosity is equal to
all the demands that Bliss makes on
his pianist. I wouldn’t say this is
a masterpiece but it’s a strong work
that is well worth getting to know and
it’s splendidly done here.
The best and strongest
piece on the CD is the Piano Concerto.
Written for and first performed at the
1939 World’s Fair in New York, the piece
is a big-hearted, bravura work that
was written with the very special technical
and interpretative prowess of Solomon
in mind. It was he who gave the première,
with Boult conducting. (APR has just
issued a CD of this very performance
and though the sound calls for considerable
tolerance at times the power and poetry
of Solomon’s performance is very evident.)
I hope I won’t be accused of unfairly
pigeonholing the work if I describe
it as English with a strong dash of
Rachmaninov. It seems to me to be an
ideal vehicle for Peter Donohoe’s talents
and he does it proud.
For all the big gestures
that it contains the first movement
often moves into poetic, reflective
mood. Donohoe is equally successful
in both types of music. Indeed, I’d
say it’s a strength of this performance
that the listener (or at least this
listener) notices the lyrical passages
so much; they’re poetic but strongly
profiled. I love the limpid delicacy
and innocence at the very start of the
slow movement and, once again, I feel
Donohoe is wholly successful here, capturing
well the mood of nostalgic introspection.
In the more urgent central section the
temperature is briefly raised before
the reflective ambience is re-established.
Donohoe brings a touch of magic to the
It seems as if Bliss
is reluctant at first to break the spell
as the finale begins for the opening
is subdued. Soon, however, the music
becomes urgent and driven. This rondo
is propelled along buoyantly not just
by Donohoe but by Lloyd-Jones and the
orchestra, who give committed support
as indeed they do throughout the work.
There’s a fine rhythmic impulse to the
performance. The last couple of minutes
bring a touch of grandiloquence, though
these performers sensibly don’t overplay
their collective hand, before the last
throw of the rondo sends the concerto
hurtling to an emphatic close.
This is an excellent
performance of an underrated work. It
is a performance that does not suffer
at all in comparison with such distinguished
predecessors as Noel Mewton-Wood (on
label), the unsung Trevor Barnard
(a 1962 recording with Sargent on The
Divine Art) and the great Solomon
himself (Naxos or the live version on
APR). The concerto has been in need
of a good modern recording for some
time (the last, I believe, was by Phillip
Fowke for Unicorn-Kanchana in the early
1980s) but the wait has been worthwhile.
As I’ve said already,
the notes by Andrew Burn (in English
only) are excellent, a model of their
kind. The recordings are good without
being in the demonstration class. On
my equipment the recording of the sonata
sounded the best. Not only is the acoustic
(and, possibly, the piano) different
but the engineers have been able to
focus on just one instrument and have
produced a more satisfyingly integrated
sound. The piano sounds richer throughout
its compass. In the concerto recordings
(and that of the Piano Concerto especially)
the solo instrument sounded a bit shrill
in the uppermost ranges. The soloists
were set a little too far forward in
relation to the overall sound picture.
I felt there was something of a lack
of bloom and ambience round the overall
sound. However, it’s important to make
a couple of important caveats to those
comments. Firstly, there is nothing
in the sound quality that will detract
from enjoyment of the excellent performances.
Secondly, the sound may well reproduce
differently on other equipment. Purchasers
may invest with confidence.
I warmly welcome this
CD and look forward to further volumes
in this most interesting and enterprising
series. In particular I hope that Peter
Donohoe will not wait too long before
giving us the Rubbra concerto. I’d like
to think also that Naxos will follow
up this release by recording more Bliss.
A modern recording of the Violin Concerto
is long overdue.