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

A welcome release this, especially as the ballet Checkmate is offered complete with Prologue. Lloyd-Jones has recorded parts of the ballet before for Hyperion (CDA66436), and it is evident he knows this score well.

The disc opens with an early work of Bliss, Mêlée Fantasque (1921). Perhaps it relies too heavily upon the knowledge required of the artist and friend Claude Lovat Fraser's paintings, but it is a short colourful work, using much percussion and brass, and inspired by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes of the period. It stands as a balletic attempt at an English equivalent of a "Pictures at an Exhibition of One Particular Artist".

The Bliss masterpiece Checkmate (1936-37) is the main fare, and is complete, lasting a little over 53 minutes. The opening Prologue is a powerfully stated piece, with a touch of Elgarian essence, even wistfulness. It acts as a musical introduction to all the players (chess pieces), chess being a game that Bliss loved.

The Dance of the Red Pawns is conveyed with a jaunty frivolity, followed by the Dance of the Four Knights, powerful "rondo burlesque-ish" music, and one which must be a concert hall favourite. All the jousting is halted immediately, as the Black Queen makes her entrance, sinister, omnipotent, and with solo melodic lines played by various woodwind and violin, which recur at later stages in the ballet.

Lloyd-Jones, throughout, conveys the dramatic as well as the balletic side to this wonderful score. Following the relief (by all) of the Black Queen having momentarily disappeared, the Red Knights strike up a Waltonian type mazurka. This is followed by the Red Bishop's procession (laced with touches of Vaughan Williamsí 8th symphony modality complete with bells), before the action turns to a strutting march of brutish power by the Red Castles.

The Attack proceeds with brass powerfully blended, and with the oboes contributing beautifully. The Duel which follows, is probably the most sheerly balletic of the whole work, with reminders from various sections of the orchestra that the Black Queen is around. And indeed she is, because her Dance is deliciously pointed as a sort of teasing tango, eyeing her prey. Finally, to thundering percussion, the Black Queen delivers her Death Blows to the Red King with a stunning and fearful finality.

Checkmate is a wonderful score, and works exceedingly well on its own. It tests all aspects of the orchestra, especially the winds, brass, and timpani. The Scottish orchestra play well, and Lloyd-Jones portrays the various sections with much vividness, and with tempi that convince.

Two caveats prevent me from awarding the topmost marks. Firstly, the sound has a touch of "boominess" to the bass, affecting the percussion, although it must be said, most detail is clear, if perhaps, in the final analysis, the sound is a little too close. The other is where the clarinets make a bit of a pig's ear in the opening bars to the Black Queen's entry, and show some insecurity in the Duel section.

But on the whole, this is a very rewarding release, and is sure to give much pleasure, perhaps even prompting listeners to check out previous recordings by Handley, Bliss and Irving, all of whom, present a truncated version of the full score. The only other recording of the full ballet is on ASV CD WLS 255 where Barry Wordsworth conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia - a 2 CD set which is a tribute to Dame Ninette de Valois.

Ray Hall

see also review by Terry Barfoot - October Bargin of the Month


Before this disc went out for review Chris Thomas and David Dyer and myself auditioned it in the listening room. I was surprised by Ray's comments so called up another copy so we could listen again. We found this a spacious and clear recording well up with many recent Naxos releases. Any boominess in the percussion is not that of the recording but in the very nature of the timps used..

Len Mullenger


Comparison review - ASV recording of complete Checkmate




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