Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) [33:46]
Metamorphic Variations (1972) [38:49]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 11-12 May 2009 The Concert Hall, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset. DDD
NAXOS 8.572316 [72:36]
Metamorphic Variations is a work that I have always had mixed views about. I first heard this work on the BBC Classics CD LC3007 CD which was released in 1996. On the one hand there is no doubt in my mind that this is an important work with much interesting music reflecting the depth of achievement of the composer’s career: it was written in the last years of the composer’s life. Yet I am not sure just how satisfactory I find this piece as a whole. Although it is presented as a set of variations (it was originally entitled Variations for Orchestra) there is a definite feel that this is a ‘string of pearls’ rather than an organic whole. The programme notes suggest that the piece is subtly structured and has strong developmental logic and I am sure that the formal characteristics are well organised. Yet I consider that this work could be better defined as a sequence, leaning towards a ballet score: a contemporary reviewer in The Times suggested that the work would soon attract the attention of the choreographer.
The Metamorphic Variations was written as a tribute to the artist George Dannatt (1915-2009) and his wife who were personal friends of the composer. The artist’s set of paintings entitled Tantris provided the inspiration for the piece. Dannatt had a cottage in the depths of Wiltshire and it was here that the composer wrote much of the score.
The work was commissioned by the Croydon Arts Festival, was completed in the autumn of 1972 and was first performed by Vernon Handley and the London Symphony Orchestra in April 1973. It is Arthur Bliss’s longest ‘abstract orchestral concert work’.
The composer indicated that there are three themes which are given at the start of the work. He stated that these are ‘Elements’ and undergo considerable transformation as the work progresses. These three ‘Elements’ are a ‘long cantilena for solo oboe’ followed by a ‘two bar phrase for the horns’ and finally a ‘cluster of semitones very close together introduced by the woodwind’.
There is an inherent danger with this work that listeners may spend time trying to spot the influence of a variety of other composers. Certainly, the second variation ‘Ballet’ and the Scherzos are redolent of Igor Stravinsky. The reflective moments may call Delius to mind and the more ceremonial music suggests Elgar or even Walton. Yet the true character of Bliss is often revealed in these pages – none perhaps more obvious than in the final ‘Affirmation’. The heart of the work is surely the ‘Funeral Procession’ which has been regarded as the composer’s final, personal exorcism of the horrors of the Great War.
Whatever may be problematic with the work’s structure and stylistic markers is largely made up for in the sheer imagination of the scoring. The orchestration balances subtlety with a virtuosity that places considerable demands on the players.
In spite of my misgivings, this is an important work that in many ways sums up the composer’s achievement. This present recording is certainly most welcome for all Bliss enthusiasts: the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Lloyd-Jones respond to the superb orchestration and convincingly reflect the variety of mood enshrined in these 14 ‘sections’ or ‘movements’. Naxos in their advertising blurb give an excellent summary of the mood of this music –‘it is a work of extremes, of enormous power, passion and violence balanced by gentleness, whimsy and delicacy.’
Like many listeners of my generation, I first heard the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow on the now elderly Lyrita vinyl recording (SRCS 33 now reissued on SRCD254). It was a work that impressed me then and continues to do so some 35 years later. I recall a Bliss enthusiast telling me that this work was Sir Arthur at his pastoral best. I disagree. Although there is some fine ‘reflective’ and even ‘ruminative’ music in this score, it is not the purpose of the work to propose an English landscape as its thesis. If anything it is cathartic: to my mind it is the landscapes and battlefield wastelands of France that are evoked by the composer who had fought there - not the South Downs on a sunny day. That said, I consider that some of this music may be a soldier’s reminiscence of his homeland whilst laid up in a trench in the Somme or the Marne. In fact, Bliss has written that ‘... if I were asked for a few works that represent my life’s music, this [work] would certainly be one of them.’
John Blow was Composer in Ordinary to King Charles II and as such was a predecessor of Bliss who had been made Master of the Queens Musick in 1953. In that same year the composer was given a copy of Volume VII of Musica Britannica, ‘Coronation and Verse Anthems by John Blow’ (1953). This happened at the same time as he had received a commission from the Feeney Trust for a work for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The story goes that he was so impressed by a particular tune in the ‘sinfonia’ which was a part of Blow’s Psalm 23 – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ that he was compelled to write a set of variations on this melody, with each variation illustrating one of the verses of the Psalm. It is important to note that these Meditations are not a pastiche on music from the age of John Blow: there is no ‘hint of archaism’ in this piece.
The work has an introduction followed by five meditations on ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’, ‘Thy rod and staff they comfort me’, ‘Lambs’, ‘He restoreth my soul’, ‘In green pastures’ followed by an interlude ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’. The work ends triumphantly with a reflection on ‘In the House of the Lord.’
Meditations on a Theme by John Blow was given its first performance in the City Hall, Birmingham by the CBSO conducted by Rudolf Schwarz on 13 December 1955.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this CD. The quality of the sound is superb; the enthusiasm of the orchestra and conductor is palpable. The learned essay by Giles Easterbrook is excellent and gives a detailed analysis of each piece. I do not want to get into the business of saying which version of these works are the best or even that which I personally prefer. There is always a temptation to have a predilection for the first recording of any piece heard. I would not lose my Lyrita or BBC Classics versions of this music for anything. Yet the present recording is everything a good performance ought to be – demanding, searching and ultimately moving.

John France
Demanding, searching and ultimately moving. ... see Full Review