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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891–1975)
The Enchantress (1951) [17:11]
Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (Psalm XXIII – The Lord is my Shepherd) (1955) [32:11]
Mary of Magdala (premiere recording) [27:17]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) James Platt (bass)
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2019, Watford Colosseum. DSD
Texts included.

Sir Andrew Davis continues his exploration of the music of Sir Arthur Bliss. He’s already given us very fine recordings of The Beatitudes (review) and Morning Heroes (review). This latest release includes a significant recorded premiere and a long overdue new recording of one of the composer’s very finest works.

The premiere recording is of the sacred cantata Mary of Magdala. Scored for contralto and bass soli, chorus, and orchestra, the work was the last of four for which Bliss had as his librettist Christopher Hassall (1912 – 1963), who also furnished the text for The Beatitudes. Hassall’s text tells of Mary of Magdala discovering Christ’s empty tomb on Easter morning and also includes her memories of her first encounter with Christ when, ignoring the scorn of the bystanders, she anointed his feet with ointment. Hassall assembled his text from scripture and from two poems, one by Edward Sherburne (1618-1702) and one by Rowland Watkins (c 1614 – 1665). Hassall died before the score was competed and Bliss dedicated it to his memory. The composer himself conducted the first performance at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1963.

At the beginning of the cantata the chorus sets the scene by singing of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Crucifixion and then of Mary’s journey to Christ’s sepulchre. Mary’s first solo mingles sorrow, as she recalls the death of Christ, and compassion. There’s a good deal of expressive writing for the soloist here and elsewhere and Sarah Connolly sings Bliss’s music with great depth of expression. As she recalls the first time she met Christ, the chorus is heard scorning her and disparaging her as a harlot. At this point, James Platt, as Christ, intervenes rebuking the crowd; his music has dignity which Platt conveys well. Hassall now sets, for the chorus, lines from Sherburne’s poem. Up to this point the music has been engaging but I think it steps up a gear as Hassall and Bliss portray Mary’s arrival at the tomb and her horror at finding it empty, desecrated, she assumes, by grave robbers. Two angels intervene, assuring her there is no cause for tears. These words are sung by sopranos from the chorus, supported by very delicately scored accompaniment; this is a highly effective little episode.

Mary mistakes Christ for the gardener. Very quietly, Christ calls her name, the moment very well imagined in Bliss’s music. Equally well imagined is Mary’s outburst of astonished joy as she recognises Christ. There follows a scene between the two of them which contains some particularly eloquent music for Mary. The poem by Rowland Watkins is then set for Mary and the chorus, the words introduced by some delectable writing for flute and oboe. The metaphor of Christ as the gardener, sustained in the poem, allows Bliss licence to write in a pastoral vein and from now until the end of the cantata the music is gently joyful. Only in the last few moments does the volume rise momentarily as the chorus exclaims ‘Rabboni! Master, Master!’ Significantly, though, Mary then utters the same words, but this time to rapt music that is hushed and pensive. It’s a touching and satisfying conclusion to the work.

Mary of Magdala seems to have sunk almost without trace; I’ve never heard it before. I hope that this recording will widen interest in it because it deserves to be better known. It could scarcely receive better advocacy than it does here. Sarah Connolly gives a marvellous, all-encompassing performance of the title role and she’s well partnered by James Platt in his more modest role. Sympathetically directed by Davis, the BBC chorus and orchestra help to make the best possible case for the work. I doubt there’s likely to be another recording of the cantata so Bliss devotees will want to grasp with both hands the opportunity that this recording presents to hear and evaluate this neglected score.

The Enchantress is also rarely heard in concert but at least it has had the benefit of a couple of recordings. The first to appear was a studio recording from November 1989, also for Chandos, in which Linda Finnie was partnered by the Ulster Orchestra and Vernon Handley (CHAN 8818). I’m not sure if that recording is still available. More recently, Lyrita issued an archive recording, from the Richard Itter collection, of a 1957 BBC performance in which Pamela Bowden sang with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Rudolf Schwarz (review). Bliss wrote this scena for contralto and orchestra work for Kathleen Ferrier. For his text he turned to Henry Reed (1914 – 1986) who adapted for him a passage from the Second Idyll of Theocritus. The soloist takes the part of Simętha, a Cyracusan lady who has been deserted by her lover, Delphis.

The words and Bliss’s music call for a wide emotional range from the singer and Sarah Conolly brings all her operatic experience to bear upon the score. She sings with great intensity and commitment, yet never is tonal quality sacrificed in the interests of drama. The cause of the piece is further advanced by the quality of the Chandos recording. Bliss’s orchestration is full of incident and interest, all of which is conveyed with impact and in satisfying detail by the recording. Both Linda Finnie and Pamela Bowden remain well worth hearing in this compelling piece. The sound on Finnie’s 30-year-old recording is very good but Chandos in 2019 can now produce even more gripping results. The excellent Pamela Bowden performance is presented in sound that is remarkably good for 1957 but, of course, it’s not the sonic equal of this newcomer. Sarah Connolly’s performance would now be my clear first choice anyway in this work, but the quality of the recording greatly enhances its claims on the attention of collectors. Incidentally, Chandos divide the work into five separate tracks, which is really helpful; both of the other recordings lay it out on just one track.

I wish I could say that Meditations on a Theme by John Blow is much better known but, sadly, I can’t. I’m struggling to recall a recent performance. That’s a sad indictment of concert promoters because this is, I am certain, one of Bliss’s very best works – similar in stature to A Colour Symphony and Morning Heroes. The score is inventive, full of colour and incident and brilliantly laid out for orchestra. If only audiences were allowed to hear it, I’m sure they would take it to their hearts. Happily, we have had some recordings to sustain us. There was the 1966 recording by Hugo Rignold and the CBSO, the orchestra for whom it was written. That’s available on an excellent Lyrita disc (review). There’s also a 2009 recording by David Lloyd-Jones (review) and a 1994 version conducted by Barry Wordsworth (review). That doughty champion of British music, Vernon Handley, also made a fine recording of the piece for EMI – it was the first I ever owned – but I don’t know if that’s still available.

Commissioned by the Feeney Trust to write an orchestral work, Bliss was searching for inspiration when, fortuitously, he came across a book of Coronation anthems by John Blow (1649-1708). In the string sinfonia that precedes the anthem ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ he found a theme that spoke to him at once and he used it as the basis for a work which he deliberately did not call a set of variations. The work is divided into eight sections: Introduction, five Meditations, Interlude and Finale. Bliss lays out the music with consummate skill so that the theme is consistently in view – sometimes in plain sight, sometimes cunningly concealed – and his music illustrates the various sections of Psalm XXIII in a most apposite fashion.

Bliss wrote quite extensively about the work and Andrew Burn’s notes draw on those writings. In Mediation I, ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’ Bliss quotes a lovely remark by his friend, the composer Ruth Gipps, who said that in this section phrases from Blow’s melody were ‘glimpsed like smooth rocks, seen through the ripples’. What a felicitous turn of phrase. In Meditation II, ‘Thy rod and staff They comfort me’ listeners may be surprised by the strong, urgent music, powerfully projected here, which is not at all comforting. However, Sir Arthur explained that his focus had been on the rod and staff. There’s a Mendelssohnian lightness to Meditation III, ‘Lambs’. Here, the delicacy of the BBCSO’s playing conjures up perfectly the innocent frolicking of the young creatures.

The penultimate section is the Interlude, ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’. This music is sinister and oppressive. The performance is sharply etched and the vivid Chandos sound adds to the impression. The subdued passage from around 2:20 is spooky indeed before the trombones quietly and solemnly intone Blow’s theme. That leads directly into the finale, ‘In the House of the Lord’. The Pilgrim strides confidently towards his final destination and Blow’s theme comes fully into sight (and hearing). At last, the brass section plays the theme majestically, violin figurations dancing round it joyfully as it makes its stately way. This is a Shining City-on-a-Hill moment, akin to the apotheosis of the Puritan hymn tune ‘York’ near the end of VW’s Pilgrim’s Progress. After this moment of affirmative arrival, though, Bliss calms the mood (3:02) and the remainder of the piece consists of warm-toned, gentle reflection until the final emphatic chord. Meditations on a Theme by John Blow is a marvellous piece, full of inspiration and resourcefully scored. Here it receives a very fine and comprehending performance which is fully worthy of the work’s stature.

This excellent disc is one which all Bliss enthusiasts will want to acquire. It’s a significant addition to the Bliss discography, containing as it does an important first recording and versions of The Enchantress and Meditations on a Theme by John Blow which are, surely, the finest now in the catalogue. The sound is in the best traditions of Chandos. I listened to the stereo SACD layer and the results were extremely impressive. The recording is realistic, truthful and expertly balanced, allowing all the details of Bliss’s imaginative scoring to come through clearly and naturally. Andrew Burn’s excellent notes are the icing on the cake.

This third Bliss release from Sir Andrew Davis confirms once again that he has a strong affinity for this composer’s music. I hope he and Chandos will be encouraged to make more recordings. It would be great to have up to date recordings of the Metamorphic Variations, the very fine Music for Strings and, especially, the superb A Colour Symphony. The centenary of that work’s premiere at the Three Choirs Festival of 1922 might provide the spur for a new recording; I think it’s a work that would suit Davis to a tee. As Sir Andrew seems to be addressing the choral/orchestral scores, I wonder if he has his eye on the Golden Cantata (1963). That’s a work I’ve never heard, chiefly because it has yet to be recorded. Such projects may, if we’re lucky, lie in the future. For now, though, this disc is urgently recommended to all Bliss admirers.

John Quinn

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