Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
The Complete Piano Music - Volume 1
Valses Fantastiques (1913) [11:45]
Toccata (1925) [3:47]
Intermezzo (1912) [5:02]
Study (1927) [1:40]
Piano Sonata (1952) [27:00]
May-Zeeh (1910) [2:58]
Suite for Piano (1925) [20:04]
Miniature Scherzo (1969) [1:14]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 27 August 2010 and 3 January 2011
SOMM SOMMCD0111 [74:09]
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
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
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 work.
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 tinge.
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 Sonata.
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 enjoyment.
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
It is probably a wee bit of a cliché to say that I look forward to the
next volume: however it would be true.
Excellent recording and Bebbington brings his considerable experience of British
music to bear with concentrated, sympathetic and clear playing.