A great place to begin this excellent exposition of Sir Arthur
Bliss’s piano music is May-Zeeh. Hardly the most
profound piece on this CD, it is nevertheless a well-crafted
little number that balances a nod in the direction of the prevalent
‘salon music’ of the pre-Great-War years with a
subtlety and technical content beyond most examples of this
genre. It is the earliest piece (1910) on this CD, the composer’s
first surviving work for the piano and is also a premiere recording.
Arthur Bliss is hardly well-known for his piano music. Most
folk approaching his music will do so through one of the larger
pieces such as the Colour Symphony, the choral work Morning
Heroes or perhaps the film score to Things to Come.(You
can hear his very rare Beatitudes on 22 September 2012
at Coventry Cathedral. Ed.). However, any study of Bliss’s
catalogue shows a huge variety of music written in virtually
every genre - from the opera The Olympians to a Fanfare
for Macclesfield and from the ballet score Miracle in
the Gorbals to the magnificent Viola Sonata. He has created
works that are impressive, worthy and often touched with genius.
Yet his piano music remains a closed book. There are more than
twenty works listed in addition to two piano concertos. There
is plenty to explore.
Where the quantity of recordings of Bliss’s piano music
have been few and far between, the quality has been excellent.
Two major releases appeared some 21 years ago on Chandos. Kathron
Sturrock (CHAN8770) chose to couple the Viola Sonata (viola
played by Emanuel Vardi) with a selection four important works:
Masks, Triptych, Two Interludes and the Toccata.
The same year Philip Fowke (CHAN8979) released a major selection
including the then unrecorded Suite for Piano, the Sonata, and
a number of smaller works. This introduced us to Das alte
Jahr veergangen ist, the Study (1927) and the Miniature
Mark Bebbington, under the auspices of Somm has set out to record
all of Bliss’s music for piano. The present disc is the
first of two volumes and includes three premiere recordings,
which will be mentioned in due course.
The second work chronologically presented on this CD is the
serious little Intermezzo: this inward-looking music
is not like the typical examples of the genre being composed
at that time. The liner-notes suggest that it may have been
a rejected movement from the first ‘Suite for Piano’,
which was composed in 1910 and published in 1912. The Intermezzo
was the composer’s second published work.
One of the important ‘discoveries’ on this CD is
the Valses Fantastiques. The listener will not be surprised
to learn that these ‘cool’ pieces were written some
years after the publication of Maurice Ravel’s Valses
nobles et sentimentales. Bliss’s score is prefaced
by a quotation from John Keats’ ‘Fancy’: “Break
the mesh / Of the Fancy’s silken leash / Quickly break
her prison-string.” The poet may have used symbolism to
suggest that ‘Fancy’ was a bird that needed to be
set free. Whatever the literary background, Bliss had created
a delicious sound-world that is at once attractive and moving.
All four ‘Valses’ are well-written and make use
of a neo-romantic sound-world. They are a million miles away
from some of the composer’s ‘bad-boy’ experiments
that were to follow.
Listeners are on territory that is more familiar with the three
works composed during the 1920s. The Toccata is a Stravinskian
extravaganza. It was composed in 1925 after the Blisses’
return to London from their sojourn in California. It is dedicated
to his wife, Trudy. This work is in a completely different realm
to the foregoing pieces and owes much to Scriabin and Prokofiev
as well as Stravinsky. It is characterised by energy, drive
and rhythmic complexity: there are hints of jazz and ragtime.
This Toccata tests the virtuosity of the pianist to the
limit. It is a wonder why this short piece is not a standard
feature of recital encores.
The Suite for Piano (1925) is a major work. Forget any similarity
between this piece and the countless ‘suites’ being
written at that time by the Percy Elliots, the Eric Coates and
the Alec Rowleys of this world. (This is not to disparage these
composers - I love ’em all, but to note the serious intent
of Bliss’s example). It is virtually a piano sonata by
another name. Four movements make up the massive structure and
any of them can be performed separately. That said, I do believe
that they need to be heard as a group. The Suite opens with
an Overture, which hat-tips Bach at the beginning and
occasionally during its progress but is then dominated by the
rhythmic and dissonant mood of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The
Polonaise is dark and menacing. The heart of the Suite
is the Elegy that is prefaced by the dedication ‘F.K.B
Thiepval 1916’. This refers to the death of his brother,
Kennard, during the Great War. Not unsurprisingly, this is deeply
felt music. Based largely on chords, there is a sense of timelessness
about the exposition of the material. It is a subtle balance
between, what Andrew Burn has noted as solemn and wistful music.
This is one of the most moving pieces to come from Bliss’s
pen. A mood of optimism is restored with the impressive set
of six Variations which concludes the Suite. Dissonance,
aggression, movement and complexity are tied down to the prevailing
language of the mid nineteen-twenties. There is a short return
to sadder matters in the fifth ‘pastoral’ variation,
before things conclude in a mayhem of harsh chords, wild syncopations
and energetic cross-rhythms. It is an important and very successful
The Study, which dates from 1927, was dedicated to the great
English music critic Edwin Evans. I agree with Robert Matthew-Walker
when he contemplates what Evans would have thought about this
piece with ‘its rhythmic uncertainties, its technical
demands of diminished ninths and tenths and the juxtapositions
of adjacent tonalities.’ Yet listening today one can enjoy
the elusive balance between modernism and a certain romantic
The Piano Sonata is another massive, complex work. It was composed
in 1952 when the composer had reached his 62nd birthday: it
was a ‘thank-you’ present for Noel Mewton-Wood who
had championed Bliss Piano Concerto.
It is fundamentally a serious piece with a number of lighter
moments. The emotional content is varied, but does tend to be
profound. Stylistically there is an excellent balance between
advanced tonality, chromatic complexities and dissonant harmonies
with some more relaxing chords. It has been suggested that the
work is close in mood to Prokofiev’s Sixth Piano Sonata,
which was composed in 1940.
The Sonata is conceived in three largely equal movements. The
opening Moderato marcato is fresh and forceful with occasional
relief given by a lovely ‘cantabile’ melody. The
slow movement is ‘slow and serene’ and once again
epitomises Bliss’s ‘elegiac’ strain of writing.
This profound music explores a narrow range of reflective moods.
Bliss has characterised the third movement as being ‘gay
and lively’. However, the coda is more aggressive and
ends with a ‘fiery burst of sound’.
My liking of this work is largely predicated on the entire Sonata
being a mature work that manages to balance modernity with a
romantic and heroic mood. It produces a unified and satisfying
The latest item on this CD is the Miniature Scherzo dating
from 1969. It was composed to celebrate the 125th
anniversary of The Musical Times. This very short work
is based on a theme cribbed from Mendelssohn’s well-known
Violin Concerto, which had been composed in the same year as
the journal was first published. The Miniature Scherzo
is a terse little work that keeps the ‘quote’ closely
guarded. It is enjoyable and straight to the point.
The recording is excellent, as is expected from SOMM. Robert
Matthew-Walker has provided exceptional introductory ‘programme
notes’ that situate these works in the composer’s
career and give the listener all the information needed for
The first volume of Mark Bebbington’s recording of Arthur
Bliss’s piano music will be essential listening for all
enthusiasts of the composer’s music. However, Bliss was
not a parochial composer: he was popular in the United States
where he made his home for a number of years. His music is often
cosmopolitan and makes use of a wide variety of modernist techniques
as well as alluding to jazz and popular styles. The fan-base
will be much wider than enthusiasts of British music.
It is not a case of deciding which recording is best where Bebbington
reprises repertoire from twenty-odd years ago. Both Sturrock
and Fowke are essential listening. However Mark Bebbington brings
his considerable experience of British music to bear on the
entire repertoire recorded. One need only think of his stunning
cycles of music by John Ireland, Frank Bridge and the Dale and
Hurlstone Piano Sonatas - all on Somm. His playing is always
concentrated, sympathetic and clear.
It is probably a wee bit of a cliché to say that I look
forward to the next volume: however it would be true.