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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Piano Music - Volume 2
Masks (1924) [10:33]
Two Interludes (1925) [7:33]
Suite for Piano (c.1912) [17:09]
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (1932) [2:57]
The Rout Trot (1927) [2:42]
Triptych (1970) [18:03]
Bliss (One-Step) (1923) [3:15]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 2011, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
SOMM CD0148 [62:11]

The second volume in Somm’s edition devoted to Arthur Bliss’ complete piano music has been on the back-burner for some time; January 2011, in fact. Still, better late than never - and especially so when the playing is as convincing as it is here. Mark Bebbington has taken on an increasing portfolio of British works. Whilst he would almost certainly not wish to be signed, sealed and delivered as a British music specialist, he has focused strongly on the genre in his recordings. In recital naturally there’s more room for stylistic latitude.

Volume two focuses on the period 1912-32, adding the late Triptych. Masks (1924) was written in America and is full of songful syncopation and Jazz Age vibrancy. The first mask, Comedy, is rather redolent of the New York musical whilst the Romantic Mask – not wholly untroubled – exudes some richly chorded warmth. The Sinister mask, coolly insistent early on, works itself up nicely before the finale, a Military Mask draws things to a close. Insouciant though it is, in part, it soon becomes impregnated by agitation and it’s quite possible to find in the close of the piece a kind of compact, sublimated threnody. The Two Interludes also date from Bliss’ stay in America, where he lived for several years. They contrast nicely; extrovert and well characterised, though they’re probably no more than occasional pieces. For a taste of early Bliss, there is the Suite of c.1912 heard in this première commercial recording. It’s quietly lyrical, with hints of late Romanticism in its Prelude, with nobility and vocalised melodic distinction – a touch over-extended – in the central Ballade, and a light and snappy Scherzo finale.

It’s noticeable that Bebbington plays Das alte Jahr vergangen ist - Bliss’s contribution to the 1932 Bach Book for Harriet Cohen – in a streamlined, no-nonsense sort of way. In his recording of the complete book – a phalanx of British composers was represented – Jonathan Plowright (Hyperion CDA67767) took a view that was just a little more expressive. The Rout Trot derives from his well-known 1920 Rout – a piece that the Vocalion company courageously recorded soon after its composition – and is an example of a Joplinesque-Confreyesque rag, the kind of thing that Ervin Schulhoff, for one, was soon to latch on to. The Triptych is necessarily a very different kind of work. It’s late Bliss, and was written for Louis Kentner. It’s quite arresting though I don’t know if it could be truly considered radical, as Robert Matthew-Walker suggests in his fine sleeve-notes. It’s certainly arresting in part, quietly powerful in the Dramatic Recitative that is the second piece and there’s no doubting its concise sense of characterisation. To finish there’s ‘Bliss’, composed in the same year of the American premiere of A Colour Symphony; it’s a modish One-Step incarnating his own name with doubtless a sly wink.

Volume 1 is reviewed here. You may also like to note the 1980s Chandos survey of the Bliss piano music by Philip Fowke (CHAN8979) and Kathron Sturrock (CHAN8770).
Finely recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham – a venue of choice for Bebbington – this is an appealing volume, full of engaging, thoughtful musicianship and plenty of flair too. All credit to Bebbington and Somm.

Jonathan Woolf



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