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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 (piano)
** 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"]


Bliss’s Piano Concerto has deservedly enjoyed much attention of late with, first, the reissue of the celebrated Solomon recording (on APR – a brilliant bravura performance marred by poor sound), then Noel Mewton-Wood’s persuasive account on the BMS label and now this excellent new recording in modern sound from Naxos. [In passing I must note another fine recording by Trevor Barnard with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.(1962). This recording is now available again on Divine Art. But EMI reissued it, as part of a wonderful LP boxed set of British Piano Concertos that also included the Ireland, Britten, Rawsthorne First and Second and the Tippett and Williamson Concertos. I do hope that EMI will see fit to reissue this fine compilation one day.].

Peter Donohoe makes a welcome return to the recording studios and delivers a bravura, big-boned performance of this extrovert concerto conceived in the Late Romantic tradition. Commissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Bliss’s Piano Concerto was dedicated to the people of the U.S.A. who Bliss considered to be the most romantic in the world. It is suitably strident, confident and out-going like the citizens of America’s big cities. We must remember that Bliss was half-American on his father’s side. In the opening movement, the Gershwin influence is plain in Lloyd-Jones’s and Donohoe’s reading. But Bliss’s music also has great dramatic quality, and that sound, associated with Things to Come, is also present; plus a tenderness to balance the jazzy, brasher outbursts. Contrastingly, the second movement is dreamily romantic and reminiscent of Bliss’s ballet scores, Lloyd-Jones whispering a misty ‘will o’ the wisp’ accompaniment to Donohoe’s poetic delicacy. However there is plenty of dramatic tension as well as atmosphere. Very impressive is Donohoe’s virtuosity in the demanding scintillations of the finale with its chirpy jazzy peroration and its debonair, swashbuckling air.

Bliss’s Sonata for Piano was composed for Noel Mewton-Wood in 1952. It is again cast in a heroic and romantic mould requiring robust bravura playing in the outer movements. I was aware of some interesting influences in the opening movements – Ravel and Poulenc particularly. The central Adagio sereno is an introspection mainly gentle but not without passing clouds.

French impressionism and a certain oriental exoticism add glitter to the dazzling ebullient opening section of the Concerto for Two Pianos. A peppering of American jazz influence is also discernible. The central episode is beautifully dreamy, the pianos’ voices overlapping beguilingly before the final episode which might suggest harsh urban sophistication (a mix of New York and Hong Kong?) and glamour with a pause for tender reflection.

Unhesitatingly recommended; for Bliss enthusiasts a must. Fine performances of sparkling music in very good sound.

Ian Lace

Rob Barnett adds

This disc has already been thoroughly reviewed by Ian Lace and John Quinn so I will just address some more personal reactions without the factual background.

Competition for the Piano Concerto comes thick and fast but the field is crowded exclusively with historic reissues of which the unmissable Mewton-Wood disc is the best of the bunch standing out from the ferociously edgy sound of the Trevor Barnard version on The Divine Art and the Solomon version on Naxos.

Donohoe is not new to this genre. Previously he has recorded for Naxos both the Walton Sinfonia Concertante and the two concertante works by Finzi. Most recently I have been delighted all over again by one of the bargains of the year - EMI Classics’ Gemini double of Donohoe playing the Tchaikovsky works for piano and orchestra.

Listen to him thundering away on the first movement of the piano concerto. Almost as impressive as the syncopated cradling of that most gentle of themes at 09'10 in the first movement and at 09'56 the majesty of the work is fully brought out. The sound is clamorously immediate - not found wanting. Listen to the audio quality also in the passive start of the slow movement. In the finale Donohoe’s sharply defined quick-fire Prokofiev-like attack recalls the superb John Browning (heard most recently in deeply desirable double CD of the five Prokofiev concertos from John Wilson’s Idlewild Reissues). It’s becoming yawningly predictable now but as strong as this is (and it is the best in modern sound - compare the 1977 Philip Fowke version on reissued on Unicorn UKCD if you can find it) it will have to give way to the John Ogdon performance (2 August 1966, BBCSO conducted by the composer) if ever a presentable BBC original tape can be found.

The other works on this disc strengthen the virtues of this already strong disc. The Sonata was written in 1952 for Mewton-Wood to celebrate the composer’s delight in the young Australian’s performances of the Concerto and of course his recording of the Concerto (now on British Music Society Historic BMS101CDH). It does not have quite the dramatic savvy of the Concerto although the serene calm of the adagio sereno is memorable. The Double Concerto started out as a concerto for piano, tenor (no doubt vocalising as in Rout, Madame Noy and Rhapsody where the female voice laah-laahs or uses nonsense syllables) and strings. It was revised and transformed into the present form in 1921, 1924, 1929, 1950 and there is a version (recorded) for the three hands of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. Is the original truly lost ... I rather hope not. This compact work is extremely attractive if at first (and at the very end) very brilliantly indebted to Stravinsky’s Petrushka and later to Ravel.

This disc is part of the Naxos British piano concerto series. It already includes the Rawsthorne pair (8.555959) and I certainly hope it will extend to the John Ireland, Gordon Jacob (x2), Arnell, York Bowen (x4), Stanley Bate (x4), Albert Coates, Gaze Cooper (x6), Reizenstein (x2), Fricker, the six by Reginald Sacheverell Coke (as old-fashioned and 19th century ‘retro’ as those by Frank Merrick), Ruth Gipps, the Phantasy Concerto by Goossens, Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych, the Bax Winter Legends - a smashing work of vivid imagination and symphonic span and pre-eminent in this company the Alan Bush Piano Concerto coupled with Bush’s Africa. Plenty of territory to cover without duplication.

Let me second John Quinn’s recommendation for a fresh recording of the Bliss Violin Concerto. We have had the Campoli version for years but the under-recognised Georgiadis who revived the work with the composer in the same 1975 BBC studio concert as an early performance of the Metamorphic Variations. The conductor was Vernon Handley.

Mildly curious and still wondering about this disc? I recommend you get it. Bliss enthusiast? Well, you’ve already bought it.

Rob Barnett



see also review by John Quinn

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