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Availability
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Introduction and Allegro (1929) [12.10]
Cello Concerto (1970) [28.07]
Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) [31.25]
Antiphonal Fanfare for three brass choirs [1.34]
Flourish - Greetings to a City for two brass orchestras (1958) [6.29]
Fanfare for the Lord Mayor of London [1.44]
Things to Come – Suite (1936) [14.58]
Welcome to the Queen (1960) [6.31]
Theme and Cadenza for violin (1949) [6.15]
Introduction and Allegro (1929) [11.28]
Robert Cohen (cello)
Alfredo Campoli (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Herrmann
London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra/composer
rec. 1955-94
DECCA BRITISH MUSIC COLLECTION 4701862 [75.06 + 49.04]

This collection was the subject of a comprehensive review by Rob Barnett as long ago as 2003. The reason for reviewing the set again now is because it’s one of a number of Universal releases which, though deleted from the group’s catalogue, are now again available thanks to a licensing agreement between Universal Music Group and the independent dealers, Presto Classical of Leamington Spa. Presto now offer a Manufacture on Demand service through which they supply copies that are identical to the original releases, including booklets and artwork.

I find it hard to understand why we don’t hear more music by Bliss nowadays; it seems to be largely through the medium of recordings that his music is being kept alive. True, his output could be uneven – like many other composers - but at his best he produced fine pieces and this collection includes a representative selection of his orchestral music. I’m particularly delighted that the collection includes a work which is, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece which, if there were any justice, would be in the repertoire of most British orchestras: the magnificent Meditations on a Theme by John Blow. In this fine work Bliss takes a theme by the English composer, John Blow (1649-1708) and uses it as the basis for a work that is much more than a set of variations. The writing for orchestra is masterly and colourful and I love the way that Bliss gives us hints of the theme – some more broad than others – throughout the score before finally revealing it in full and in splendour towards the end. And what a subject for variation – or meditation – this wonderful, broad tune proves to be. There have been a couple of excellent recordings in the past, by Vernon Handley and by Hugo Rignold (review), but the present account by Barry Wordsworth is as good as any I’ve heard and the 1994 sound is first class.

The other items on the first CD come from the same sessions. The Cello Concerto was written for Rostropovich and he gave the first performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1970 with Benjamin Britten conducting. What the notes don’t mention is that Bliss originally entitled the work ‘Concertino’, feeling that the scale of the piece was rather too modest to justify the title ‘Concerto’. Apparently it was Britten himself who persuaded Bliss to adopt the title by which the piece is now known. That’s just one example, I’m afraid, of how sketchy the notes are; for that information I had to go back to Andrew Burn’s much more thorough note accompanying the 1989 Chandos recording by Raphael Wallfisch and Vernon Handley (CHAN 8818). The three-movement concerto is an attractive and likeable piece; the fairly light orchestral scoring is a boon. Andrew Burn relates that Bliss said of it: ‘There are no problems for the listener – only for the soloist.’ Robert Cohen is a first rate soloist, equally successful in the work’s robust passages and in the lyrical sections. The support from Wordsworth and the RPO is very good.

Wordsworth also adds a performance of the Introduction and Allegro. Unlike Elgar’s similarly-entitled masterpiece for strings, this score by Bliss is for full orchestra. It was first performed by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and is suitably brilliant in style. The Introduction is strong and purposeful after which the Allegro is bracing and driving yet interspersed with short episodes that are warmly lyrical. It’s interesting to compare Wordsworth’s account with Sir Arthur’s own account: he’s even more urgent in the Allegro though the 1955 sound, while not at all bad, can’t really compete with the results that the Decca engineers were achieving four decades later.

The second disc throws light on Bliss as a ceremonial composer and his work for the silver screen. Bernard Herrmann was a celebrated composer and conductor of film music but I was slightly underwhelmed by parts of his performance of music from Things to Come. Some of it was good – the imposing Prologue is very good, in fact – but the March, which is the best-known music in the score, is too heavy and steady at times. The concluding Epilogue, based on the Theme of Reconstruction, is rhetorically broad and, I’m afraid, spills over into pomposity. In 1957 Sir Arthur recorded for Decca a selection of music from the score – not the same as the suite here recorded – and he shows how it should be done. He’s much more urgent in the March while the Theme of Reconstruction has a noble flow which is quite different to – and far better than - Herrmann’s way. The Bliss-conducted recording was reissued by Dutton not long ago (review) and is well worth hearing.

Bliss’s gift for expressing pageantry in music made him arguably the best-qualified holder to date of the title Master of the Queen’s Music, at least as far as the ceremonial side of that post is concerned. His Welcome to the Queen is an orchestral march, very much in the Pomp and Circumstance style. It’s a colourful score with a fine, broad tune in the middle.

The first three tracks on this disc remind us of the tremendous virtuosity of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. The three separate brass choirs are superbly reported by the Decca engineers in the short Antiphonal Fanfare. Short the piece may be but it’s very effective and the same is true of the rather splendid Fanfare for the Lord Mayor of London. The third brass piece, Flourish - Greetings to a City is longer and rather different. It was written for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh. According to the notes this ensemble specialised in performances on rivers and they played this particular piece on the River Thames in 1961. Here again the separate brass groups – just two of them this time – are ideally separated by the engineers and faced with such quality of sound and playing one can overlook the fact that the music is somewhat too long, rather losing its way in the middle. What astonished me about these three recordings, however, was not just the technical wizardry of the playing but also the sound, which is as superb as the playing. I had to check twice to make sure I wasn’t imagining it but these recordings are indeed forty-four years old. You’d never know. The presence, amplitude and depth of sound are quite remarkable and a testament to the excellence of the Decca engineering teams of that era.

This is an excellent collection of music by Bliss and for the uninitiated it offers a very good introduction to his work. For the more seasoned Bliss collector there may well be opportunities to plug gaps in your collection. All these performances are worth hearing and the sound quality ranges from good – in the 1950s recordings – to first rate. The only quibble I have is that the notes are sketchy: Decca could and should have done better.

It’s excellent news that this set, and all the others in Decca’s British Music Collection, is available once more through Presto Classical.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Terry Barfoot ~~ Rob Barnett