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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
MÍlťe Fantasque (1921) [12.00]
Checkmate - complete ballet (1937) [53.03]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
recorded 1-9 August 2004, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow. DDD
NAXOS 8.557641 [65.03]


David Lloyd-Jones continues his impressive series of British music recordings for Naxos with two ballets by Sir Arthur Bliss.

MÍlťe Fantasque is a short score, which was prompted by Blissís enthusiasm for Diaghilevís Ballets Russes. It was inspired by the work of the painter and theatrical designer, Claude Lovat Fraser. Itís an abstract work but the apparent lack of a plot didnít inhibit Bliss from writing a vital and often energetic piece. I think itís significant that the work dates from the same period as the marvellous Colour Symphony, premiŤred at the 1922 Three Choirs Festival.† MÍlťe Fantasque displays the same confidence, boldness even, in handling an orchestra. The piece is excitingly done here and itís easy to see why this attractive and colourful work was one of the composerís own favourites.

Checkmate is a more substantial work in every respect. Composed between 1936 and 1937 it was first seen in Paris in June 1937.That premiŤre must have been a glittering occasion for the cast included many leading British dancers enacting choreography by Dame Ninette de Valois and Constant Lambert was in the pit to conduct. The music has been recorded before but mostly in incomplete form. Vernon Handley made a fine recording of some of the movements for EMI and Lloyd-Jones himself recorded the Prologue and five dances for Hyperion (now on Helios CDH 55699). However, I was surprised to find that there has only been one other recording of the complete score. That was made back in 2001 for ASV by Barry Wordsworth conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. It comes on a two-disc set, entitled ďA Tribute to MadamĒ, containing four ballet scores by different composers, all of which were written for Dame Ninette. Thatís a recording that I havenít heard.

So this present performance represents my first exposure to the complete score and mighty impressive it is. I was smitten with the extracts that Iíd heard previously but everything makes so much more sense when heard in the context of the full ballet. And I donít think I could have hoped to encounter it for the first time more auspiciously than through this masterly and vital performance.

Lloyd-Jones, as an experienced man of the theatre, albeit more in the opera house, obviously has an excellent feel for dramatic pacing and he shapes the music superbly. In his hands the Prelude has brooding tension and ample power but the following Dance of the Red Pawns is completely different in character. This is an exuberant and almost light-hearted dance and Lloyd-Jones catches the change of mood splendidly in his lively, well-sprung reading. I admired the tremendous swagger and panache with which the RSNO plays the Dance of the Four Knights while the Red Knightís Mazurka has great verve.†

Moving further into the drama we encounter music not usually heard on disc. The Attack is played with tremendous drive. Bliss scoring in this section is particularly vivid and Lloyd-Jones presents the music marvellously. This movement contains some really thrilling and brazen climaxes and the Naxos engineers report these passages very well and truthfully. The movement that follows, the Duel, in which the Red Knight and the Black Queen tussle for supremacy, has tremendous dramatic thrust in this performance. After the ferocity and tension of the fight and the treacherous slaying of the Red Knight by his adversary thereís a moment of real pathos in the plangent cor anglais solo. The Finale is dispatched with real bite and drive, with the brutality of the Red Kingís death conveyed with enormous power.

This ballet must be one of the very finest to be produced by a British composer. Itís superbly served here. I donít know if this release was designed to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Bliss but whether intentional or not this performance of Checkmate, indeed the whole CD, is a most fitting tribute to a composer who is still grossly underrated.

The playing of the RSNO is most exciting. They sound really committed to the music and that, of course, is due in large measure to the leadership of David Lloyd-Jones, who is being revealed, with the support of Naxos, as a doughty champion of British music. The sound is full, red-blooded and detailed and presents Blissís exciting and resourceful orchestration quite magnificently. Finally, the liner note by Andrew Burn is first rate. His synopsis of Checkmate is an excellent guide to the score and, very sensibly and helpfully, Naxos have tracked each of the twelve dances separately.

This is an absolutely splendid release, which will be indispensable listening for all admirers of Sir Arthur Bliss and which should be investigated urgently by all enthusiasts for British music. I recommend this CD without reservation. Iím sure it will be on my shortlist of Recordings of the Year.

John Quinn

see also Reviews by Terry Barfoot and Ray Hall






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