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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Ceremonial Prelude for orchestra and organ (1965) [5:26]
Welcome the Queen (1954) [7:20]
A Song of Welcome (1954) [16:08]
Miracle in the Gorbals - suite (1944) [23:04]
Music for Strings (1935) [24:26]
Simon Preston (organ); Joan Sutherland (soprano); John Cameron (tenor); BBC Chorus; Philharmonia/Bliss; New Philharmonia/Bliss (Prelude)
rec. live, Westminster Abbey, 28 December 1965 (Prelude); Kingsway Hall, London, 11 May, 10 June, 26 (Miracle), 27-28 January 1954. ADD.
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 0946 3 70564 2 4 [76:58]

Here is a disc first and foremost for Bliss completists. It shows Bliss as both the pastmaster of the occasional and the ceremonial and as a fierily inspired craftsman. He was as reliable a deliverer of commissions as Britten; just as individual as Britten, less of an original but with more yielding humanity than Britten could ever muster.

The Prelude written for the 900th anniversary of Westminster Abbey has the requisite grandeur and swagger. Welcome the Queen is a march that hits the spot without matching Crown Imperial - perhaps up there with Ireland's Epic March. A Song of Welcome is new to most people and apart from the odd wince-making moment (the text is by C. Day Lewis and is not printed in the booklet) is eager and sensitive; a work with the occasional force of Finzi's Ode to St Cecilia. This recording also has Joan Sutherland in her first ever recording and sounding lovely well before La Sutherland's style which became exhilarated with the music while at the same time relegating the words to also-ran status. This Miracle in the Gorbals is a fine document of the composer's reading ten years after the premiere. Allowances have to be made for the slightly vinegary sound. Then comes an exhilarating Music for Strings - a masterwork by any estimation - which finds the 63 year old composer in great form but again the sound has an acidic edge.

The Miracle suite comprises: Overture; Street; Girl Suicide; Discovery of Suicide's Body; Suicide's body is Brought in; The Stranger; Dance of Deliverance; Intermezzo; Killing of the Stranger. In its vicious squalor it surely looks to Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin though the musical language is very different. Still it must have had shock value for staid British audiences when premiered in 1944. At least the setting was Scottish - and Glasgow rather than couth Edinburgh about which Bliss wrote a swaggeringly successful overture. What did one expect of a composer with American connections! As for the music it is best heard in a splendid transfer of the 1970s analogue original from the golden days of Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony on EMI Classics 7243 5 86589 2 7 - an unmissable two disc collection - essential Bliss in the way that this good but lesser anthology does not claim to be.

This disc was issued in association with the Bliss Trust. What we urgently need now is the reissue of the Groves' Morning Heroes (inexplicably absent for years) and the first ever recording of his major choral-orchestral piece The Beatitudes. This is a masterly and inspired piece - a fine work from the Coventry Cathedral festivities slain by Britten's War Requiem just as surely as Eric Fogg's The Seasons was sunk at the Leeds Festival by Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.

Rob Barnett


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