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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]

Sadly, you’ll be lucky to encounter either of these works in the concert hall - or, indeed, many of Bliss’s scores - so recordings are to be prized both by those who admire his music, as I do, and by those curious to investigate it. Perhaps the neglect of the Metamorphic Variations is less hard to understand. Writing of the work’s première recording by Barry Wordsworth and what was then the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Rob Barnett opined that these “intricate and intriguing Variations are haunting but represent a slow-burn even among Bliss fanatics.” (review) There’s a lot in that verdict. The Meditations on a Theme by John Blow -variations in all but name, albeit each one is extensive and highly developed - are a very different matter. I’ve always highly esteemed this colourful and imaginative work and its neglect in the concert hall is disappointing though it has fared better in the studio with recordings by Hugo Rignold (review), Barry Wordsworth (review) and Vernon Handley.
I acquired the Wordsworth recording of the Metamorphic Variations quite a few years ago. Made for Nimbus in 1991, it was issued to mark the composer’s centenary. I have to confess that I haven’t listened to it much over the years, which may say something about the work - or, perhaps, about me! Consequently, I know the piece far less well than the Blow Meditations. Listening to it again now in this fine David Lloyd-Jones performance, I think that perhaps the trouble may lie in the thematic material. The key Element - Bliss entitled the first of the fourteen sections ‘Elements’ - is an extended oboe melody. As Giles Easterbrook comments in his very helpful notes, this involves more than a nod to Tristan. However, it’s also quite angular. Clearly, it furnished Bliss with lots of possibilities but I find it doesn’t lodge firmly in the memory and in fact it was only on reaching the trumpet material at the start of section V, ‘Interjections’, that I clearly discerned a reference to the oboe theme. It’s ironic that I should find it hard to pick up references to a theme so clearly stated at the outset; by contrast, in the Meditations we don’t hear the theme until quite near the end of the piece yet by the time it arrives we feel we already know it well - I readily acknowledge that may be because I know the Blow piece much better.
It’s perhaps worth recalling at this point the genesis of Metamorphic Variations. Bliss was inspired by the paintings of his longstanding friend, George Dannatt (1915-2009) and specifically by his triptych, Tantris, part of which is reproduced on the cover to this CD. This abstract work - not finished at the time Bliss saw it - inspired the creation of the composer’s most substantial piece of abstract music. Incidentally, Dannatt was sufficiently well-versed in music that he supplied detailed notes on this piece, and on A Colour Symphony, for the aforementioned recording by Barry Wordsworth.
Though I may find the thematic material of Metamorphic Variations somewhat elusive there can be no denying the resource and invention with which Bliss works out his variations, nor the imaginative, colourful way in which he uses a large orchestra. It’s also a work of contrasts. So, for example, we find delicately scored sections such as ‘Contemplation’ (section VII), which is beautifully imagined and scored by Bliss, and the equally delicate ‘Cool Interlude’ (section X). The latter provides much-needed contrast coming as it does immediately after the powerful and dark ‘Funeral Procession’. Lloyd-Jones imparts power and weight to that section which, as Giles Easterbrook says, is “the emotional, dramatic and structural summit of the work”. Throughout the work the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra seems on top of its collective game. They have all the necessary tonal resources for Bliss’s fully-scored sections such as ‘Funeral Procession’ and the opening pages of the concluding section, ‘Affirmation’. Perhaps even more admirable, however, is their work in the more exposed, lightly scored passages. Thus we can enjoy some fine solo work by the woodwinds in ‘Interjections’, some excellent playing in ‘Cool Interlude’ and some especially good contributions from the leader and the principal cello in ‘Duet’; those two players deserved to be credited but aren’t. I found myself drawn into the work as the performance unfolded and came to the conclusion that I’ve probably underrated it.
The performance ofMeditations on a Theme by John Blow is thoroughly convincing too. In the January edition of the BBC Music Magazine Terry Barfoot contributes a very good feature on Bliss and I was delighted to see that he leads off by talking about this work which he says “is one of the great works of British orchestral music, and lays claim to be Bliss’s masterpiece.” I don’t think he’s overstating the case for this splendid and inventive score. Incidentally, one thing I learned from Terry’s feature is that Radio 3’s invaluable and long-running series, Composer of the Week, originated during Bliss’s time as the BBC’s Head of Music in the early 1940s.
David Lloyd-Jones does the Meditations very well indeed. I liked, for example, the drive and vitality he brings to Meditation II, ‘Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me’, though I think Vernon Handley, in his 1979 CBSO recording (EMI), was marginally more thrusting hereabouts. Lloyd-Jones ensures that the ‘Lambs’ skip along innocently and lightly in the following Meditation and he brings a fine pastoral feel as well as an element of nobility to Meditation V, ‘In Green Pastures’. Once again Handley perhaps has a slight edge in the following section, ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’, injecting a bit more malevolence, though Lloyd-Jones’s reading is impressive also. The finale comes off really well in this Bournemouth account and the noble apotheosis of the theme (track 8, 2:06) is well worth the wait.
This is a fine CD. The playing is very good indeed as is the recorded sound. David Lloyd-Jones’ direction is consistently sure-footed and sympathetic; he’s a splendid and reliable guide to these scores. Giles Easterbrook’s notes are excellent; they introduce the music very well indeed to anyone new to the scores but equally they’re well worth reading by people who know their Bliss.
John Quinn

See also review by John France