Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Bliss conducts Bliss
A Colour Symphony (1921 rev. 1932) [31:02]
Introduction and Allegro (1926 rev. 1937) [11:24]
Music for Strings (1935)* [24:17]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Arthur Bliss
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Arthur Bliss*
rec. 23-24 November 1955, Kingsway Hall, London (Symphony and Intro and Allegro); 1954 (Music for Strings)
HERITAGE HTGCD221 [66.43]
These Decca mono recordings from the mid-1950s have always been highly regarded. A Colour Symphony and Introduction and Allegro were available on a Dutton CD issued in 1995 and very recently reissued as part of a double CD Bliss set on Dutton 2CDBP 9818. These performances are also to be found in the Naxos catalogue. I have no idea what the Naxos version sounds like but comparing the 1995 Dutton and Heritage, the Dutton transfer is the clearer of the two. On the other hand the Heritage engineers have come up with a warmer, more atmospheric sound.
One day, purely by chance, Bliss came across a book on heraldry which outlined the symbolic meanings attached to certain colours. This triggered his imagination and resulted in him writing A Colour Symphony in 1921. The first movement Purple (the colour of Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty and Death) is very English and ceremonial in character with a certain Elgarian nobility about it. This is followed by Red (the colour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage and Magic) a biting, sparkling scherzo with echoes of Stravinsky and maybe the Holst of Mercury. Next we have Blue (the colour of Sapphires, Deep Water, Skies, Loyalty and Melancholy) a slow movement that can be described as pastoral English music at its finest. Bliss explained that the chords used here depict the lapping of water against a pier or a moored boat. The triumphant finale Green (the colour of Emeralds, Hope, Youth, Joy, Spring and Victory) includes a superb double fugue that eventually leads to a glowing conclusion. This is a gripping, tuneful and uplifting symphony containing some warm hearted and melancholic moments along with flashes of youthful exuberance. The performance given here by the LSO is still the best available on disc and the sound, despite being a transfer from a mono LP, is perfectly enjoyable. This is classic early Decca.
The same sound quality can be heard in the Colour Symphony’s original LP coupling, the wonderful Introduction and Allegro, written as a showpiece for Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926. I’ve seen this described in some of our esteemed music guides as being a professionally written but unmemorable work. I beg to differ. It’s a cracking piece, bristling with good ideas, pages of elegiac repose and some tremendously exciting climaxes. The music never gets bogged down or threatens to outstay its welcome. It’s always moving forward and the levels of invention and craftsmanship are high. I urge anyone who hasn’t heard this piece to snap this disc up and get to know it without delay.
Mention is made in the sleeve-notes of Sir Arthur working with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in his later years. Indeed he did. Their rather moving version of Introduction and Allegro, recorded under the baton of Sir Arthur for Argo in 1970 can still be heard in another LP transfer (Klassic Haus KHCD-2012-022 stereo). This is well worth searching out but, as brilliant as the LSSO sounds, the virtuosity of the LSO in this Heritage release is peerless.
The final work featured on the disc is Sir Arthur’s undisputed masterpiece Music for Strings. It was first performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Adrian Boult at the 1935 Salzburg Festival and it cemented the composer’s growing international reputation and stature. The opening Allegro moderato breathes much the same air as Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. The slow movement and finale are rather more advanced harmonically but the spirit of Elgar returns in the final flourishes. The Philharmonia play their hearts out for the composer. The transfer is as good as new and quite remarkable considering its 1954 provenance. I’ve heard less satisfying string tone from some modern digital productions. This is a very worthwhile addition to the continuing series of discs dedicated to British music presented by Heritage.