Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
String Quartet No 1 in B flat (1941) [28:07]
String Quartet No 2 in F minor (1950) [29:11]
Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet
rec. 1995/96, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg, Germany
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 01412 [57:48]
These recordings are not new, but the disc has only just come to my attention, though it has previously been reviewed by Rob Barnett back in 2002. I must say immediately how pleasing it is to find this German string quartet, founded in 1989, championing music by Sir Arthur Bliss; and all the more so since performances of his quartets aren’t exactly staple repertoire even for British ensembles.
As Meinhard Saremba points out in the useful notes, the two present quartets weren’t Bliss’s first attempts in the medium. He wrote a Quartet, Op 4 in 1914, which was privately published. Though Saremba says, quite correctly, that the work was withdrawn, Lady Bliss heard the work in 1993 and agreed to release it for performance. I actually heard a performance of this A major Quartet in 2019 and I thought it a worthwhile work (review). Saremba also mentions a further Quartet, written in 1923/4 but this only survives, we learn, as an incomplete manuscript.
Bliss wrote his First Quartet in the USA. He’d been on a tour of north America when war broke out and, initially, he remained there – his family were with him and his wife, of course, was American. He returned to the UK in due course to become Head of Music at the BBC. This B flat quartet was premiered in California in April 1941. It’s cast in four movements. The first movement has a short Andante maestoso introduction which commands the listener’s attention before moving seamlessly into the main body of the movement. This is marked Allegro con brio and though there are some reflective stretches of music – and a tranquil ending - much of the musical argument is in an energetic, lively vein. Bliss lays out the music very convincingly for the four instruments.
The Allegretto grazioso which follows is genial and mobile in nature; I find the music’s light textures very pleasing. The third movement, Sostenuto, is serious and thoughtful; here, I think Bliss’s melodic invention is at its peak in the work. It’s a notable movement. The finale is a vivacious creation in which the scampering first violin line is the key driver. This is an impressive string quartet.
The First Quartet received its European premiere in 1942 at the hands of the Griller Quartet. Eight years later, in 1950, Bliss wrote his Second Quartet for that ensemble.
Again, the work is laid out in four movements. First comes an Allegro con spirito and the tempo marking is very appropriate because the music is full of spirit – as is the present performance. The slow movement, like the equivalent movement in the First Quartet, is marked Sostenuto. Bliss later described it – very accurately – as “slow and contemplative in character”. The writing is interesting and exploratory. The music is almost entirely subdued in volume – even shadowy. The present performance is a good one but I think that the Maggini Quartet’s playing on their Naxos recording is more probing (review). Bliss wanted the scherzo to be played “at top speed” and the members of the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet oblige. This is a brilliant, virtuoso movement which they dispatch with great confidence. In the finale, passages of slow music (Larghetto) alternate with faster sections (Allegro). To be honest, this is music that I respect rather than love but, in any case I was mildly disappointed by the present performance. It seems to me that the members of the Maggini Quartet are rather more “inside” the music, especially the Larghetto episodes. To be fair to the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, I think that part of the trouble is that here, as elsewhere, the recorded sound doesn’t flatter them. They are heard in what seems me to be a very studio-bound acoustic and they’re a little too close to the microphones. The Maggini recording, made in Potton Hall, Suffolk, is much more pleasing.
Though I haven’t heard the disc myself, to judge by the review that we published of the Maggini’s recording of the First Quartet, that too may also enjoy a sonic advantage over this Troubadisc recording. Like its Naxos companion, it too was made in Potton Hall and our reviewer commented favourably on the sound. Incidentally, that review was one of many highly valued contributions to MusicWeb International by the late Terry Barfoot, who died just as I was working on this review. Terry wrote knowledgeably about many composers and he knew a lot about Bliss; he was a regular contributor of articles to the Arthur Bliss Society Newsletter.
As I say, I’ve not heard the Maggini recording of the First Quartet. On balance, I think their account of the Second Quartet offers a little more than does the performance by the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet. That said, the German quartet offers estimable performances and their disc offers the distinct advantage of coupling the two quartets together on a single CD. Bliss devotees will want both this disc and those by the Maggini Quartet in their collections so that they can compare and contrast.
Previous review: Rob Barnett