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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]

It is particularly satisfying to note that the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Sir Arthur Bliss is being recognized by some important new recordings, revealing his stature as one of the finest composers of the 20th century. There is no need to describe him merely as ‘one of the finest British composers’.

Bliss was a central figure in British musical life across many decades. Emerging during the 1920s as an important composer out of an avant-garde early phase, he composed successfully in all the main genres and, having received a knighthood in 1950, became Master of the Queen’s Musick following the death of Sir Arnold Bax in 1953. He maintained this position right through to the time of his death in 1975.

These two pieces – Mêlée Fantasque and the ballet Checkmate, are separated by nearly twenty years. Both have ballet connections, although only the latter really established itself in the theatre. Mêlée Fantasque of 1921 was composed under the spell of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, for Bliss was always profoundly aware of contemporary artistic trends. This was his first orchestral score, yet it seems so assured in its handling of texture and colour in particular. He succeeded in his intention to ‘convey the rhythmic verve and Bakst-like colour of Lovat Fraser’s painting’. These Scottish performers capture exactly that spirit, and the recording is among the best that Naxos has achieved: atmospheric, clear and bright.

It is Checkmate, however, that is of prime interest here. Choreographed by Ninette de Valois, the work received a glittering premiere in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in June 1937. The full score plays for nearly an hour, and this is only its second recording, following that made by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and Barry Wordsworth in 2001. All the other issues over years were of various selections for the concert hall - which work well enough, it needs to be said. Bliss played chess and his understanding of the game informed his creative work, not least the tensions and moments of calm as it progresses.

David Lloyd-Jones conveys the longer view in his control of the performance, drawing expert playing from the Scottish orchestra in every department. For example, the woodwinds cover themselves in glory in the Entry of the Black Queen, while the brass are never shy of forcing the tone when a climax demands it.

With typically well written insert notes from Andrew Burn, this excellent disc becomes a top recommendation.

Terry Barfoot



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