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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B flat major (1939) [38’49"]
Sonata for Piano* (1952) [21’54"]
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra** (1950) [12’16"]
Peter Donohoe
** Martin Roscoe (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Rec. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 12-13 Sept 2002; *Potton Hall, Suffolk, 17 Jan 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557146 [72’59"]

 

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 once again.

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), to oblivion.

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 Concerto [see 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 hushed ending.

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 the BMS 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.

Strongly recommended.

John Quinn

 



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