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Sir ARTHUR BLISS Checkmate Suite* Quintet for Clarinet and Strings** Hymn to Apollo* Music for Strings Pastoral 'Lie Strewn the White Flocks'      Janet Hilton (clarinet)**, Della Jones (mezzo) Lindsay String Quartet** Ulster Orchestra/Handley* Northern Sinfonia/Hickox CHANDOS 2for1 CHAN 241-1




If you have ever crossed over and walked on the other side having seen the music of Sir Arthur Bliss lying in the CD racks then this is just the CD set to stop you in your tracks. These recordings, conducted by Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox are well established and highly regarded and bear the hallmark of sumptuous Chandos sound.

On the whole, the music of Sir Arthur Bliss now sounds rather formal (I imagine Bliss and Sir Adrian Boult to have had a lot in common - both being English Gentlemen) but it was often considered very modern in its time. It is tuneful, often forceful and frequently exciting. Bliss had always been fascinated by heraldry and had written his Colour symphony for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival. In 1937 he had the opportunity to revisit the heraldic tincture with his first ballet written for Sadlers Wells first visit to Paris where his great friend Constant Lambert was to conduct. The choreographer was Ninette de Valois (later Dame, who was 100 last year) and the set designer was the graphic artist McKnight Kauffer. Surprisingly neither of them knew anything about chess, the idea for the ballet having come from Bliss himself, so he had to invite them to his home where he had a large chess board on which he could explain the nature of the game and the particular moves of the pieces which he would wish to have interpreted on the stage. What we have here is the 25 minute Suite although the ballet itself is rather short at around 45 minutes.

There are good notes by Andrew Burn but I shall take advantage of the available space of a web site to flesh out the ballet in a little more detail. The dancers take the part of the chess pieces but the game of chess also requires two players. These are masked and open the ballet being seated either side of a chessboard. The stage itself is also marked out in chess squares. The two players had to be opposites so Bliss had toyed with the idea of presenting them as Night and Day, Alpha and Omega or just Black and White but his eventual choice, revealed as they remove their masks, are Love, in golden array, and Death - a skeleton on black. The ballet is a game of love and death acted out according to the rules of chess.

The suite closely follows the order of the ballet. In the prologue the curtain rises to reveal the two players who set up the pieces on the board. Pawns disport themselves playfully followed by the four knights who come hoofing in to music of splendour and valour. The Red Knights dominate but in the next scene we meet the Black Queen (to music that is positively slinky) and she beguiles the Red Knight who accepts from her a black rose; but sharp interjections in the score tell us, if not him, that he should beware. In return for the rose, the Red Knight dances a memorable prancing Mazurka. To soft strings and a tolling bell the Red Bishops enter and bless the Red Knights. In preparation for the battle the Red Knights prance and stamp onto the board and the pawns dance round them in adulation. In a touching scene the beautiful young Red Queen slowly introduces the doddery and agèd king and leads him to his throne. The Black Queen and pawns enter and the Black Queen menaces the King, with the Red Queen dancing pleadingly for his safety. She is captured and the Red King summons the Red Knight to do battle to win back his Queen. The Black Queen toys with him and allows herself to be captured but, just as he is about to plunge his sword in her breast, he finds her too alluring, is himself overcome and killed.

As the Red King and supporters bid farewell to the brave Red Knight, Love leaves the stage in distress, Death stalks around the board, and the Black Queen dances in triumph. The Red King is now all alone, wandering lost and bewildered, constantly threatened by the Black Knights. Dancing to a quick march, the Black forces assemble, threatening all the while, and cage the Red King, tormenting him with their spears - there are no Red pieces left to save him. The Black Queen is carried shoulder high in triumph and she dispatches the Red King from behind - CURTAIN.
All this to music that is always sympathetic to the action, exciting, descriptive and barbaric when needed - not to be missed.

It was during the time of the rehearsals of Morning Heroes for the 1930 Norwich festival that Bliss got to know the composer Bernard van Dieren. In his autobiography, As I Remember, Bliss writes

......the most enigmatic personality I have ever met. In a paying tribute to his memory after his death I wrote that he partook of the nature of a Leonardo da Vinci, so multifarious were his inventive interests. He not only played a musical instrument, but he could make one, he not only wrote books such as his monograph on Epstein, but he was a beautiful binder of books; he was a linguist, a chemist, and a composer of many songs and much chamber music. Continuous illness, borne with much courage, kept him mostly confined to his house, but friends went regularly to see him in St John's Wood as to some rare Delphic oracle. When I came to write my clarinet quintet in 1931 I dedicated it to Bernard van Dieren in gratitude for the many stimulating hours I had spent with him and his wife, Frida, content (and I know this is a rare thing with me) simply to listen.

Van Dieren was too ill to attend the first performance of the Quintet given by Frederic Thurston in 1932.

Some regards the Quintet as the composer's masterpiece. The work is in four movements played here by Janet Hilton recorded in perfect balance with the Lindsay String Quartet (and, thank goodness, no obtrusive sniffing or intakes of breath). Solo clarinet opens the moderato in pensive, rather sad vein underlined by the viola. Cello and violins join and become more animatedly expressive with a walking theme on the cello and strong statement for the violin as the music moves from the shadows into the sun-light, becoming more affirmative. The allegro is positively skittish with strong, pizzicato violin that continues to have a slightly more dominant role with the clarinet often just ornamentation. There is much to delight the ear in this movement. The adagietto is the longest movement tinged with sadness and regret. Bliss was never able to fully expunge his memories of the Great War and the loss of his brother, Kennard, and so many friends. I rather disagree with Andrew Burn who maintains this to be a tranquil work marking the exorcism of the ghost of war - that is just not how I hear it; the anguish may have disssipated but the sadness and regret is here most eloquently expressed. The work ends brilliantly in a zig-zagging sunburst - the movement is entitled allegro energico.

There is another sunburst at the end of Hymn to Apollo - the Greek god of the sun (well actually more the god of light, Helios being the god of the sun although this may well not be how Bliss was perceiving him, Apollo having so many different attributes [see below]). This is not a vocal piece as the title might lead one to expect. It was written in 1926 for Pierre Monteux to perform following the great success with the Colour symphony. The first performance was with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam

"Monteux had warned me that the conservative audiences in the Concertgebouw did not respond quickly to new music and that he had come to rate silence as tolerance and a sprinkling of applause as real appreciation. He certainly was most warmly welcomed and, on his suggestion, I took the scattered claps that greeted my Hymn to Apollo as definitely reassuring" op. cit.

Bliss described this work as an invocation addressed to Apollo in his role as the god of the healing art, Apollo latromantis, physician and seer. After a quiet opening on woodwind and harp the strings stride out confidently over a plucked bass reminiscent of Holst "culminating in a triumphant ringing climax - shining with light" to quote the booklet note by Andrew Burn. This may be a piece about a Greek god - sun god or healer - but the music is quintessentially English and brings to an end the first superb disc.

Music for Strings in three movements is probably the best known piece by Bliss. The opening allegro charges away with chopping basses reminiscent of some of the rhythms to be heard in Checkmate. There is nothing effete about this work which stands comparison with the Elgar Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan-Williams' Tallis variations, and it must surely have been an inspiration to the young Britten whose Frank Bridge variations arrived a couple of years later. Bliss wrote:

I have often been told that I am a 'romantic' composer as though that carried in these days some deprecatory significance. I have not the remotest idea of what is implied by that definition, since the very wish to create is a romantic urge, and music the romantic art par excellence. So Music for Strings, in spite of its neutral title, is a romantic work, and it received its first performance in a romantic setting, the Summer Salzburg Festival of 1935, when Adrian Boult conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert of British music.

Lie strewn the white Flocks (1928) was dedicated to Elgar and the vocal writing is very Elgarian. It is based on an anthology of poems Bliss collected, inspired by a visit to the fountain of Arethusa at Syracuse in Sicily. No texts are supplied although the diction of all singers is very clear. There are nine short movements - all of a bucolic nature - nymphs and shepherds tending the flocks whilst celebrating the nameday of Pan, represented by the flute played by David Haslam. There are moments of Ravel (Daphnis and Chloe, as noted by other commentators), but in the main the choral writing is reminiscent of Elgar or of the Vaughan-William's Sea Symphony. From the Introduction we learn that it is the Shepherd's Holyday and there follow four sections celebrating Pan: A Hymn to Pan, Pan's Saraband, Pan and Echo and the Naïad's music. The music can be affectionate (Introduction, Pan and Echo) or invigorating ( Hymn to Pan, Song of the reapers) although  in the last section of Song of the reapers we hear Pan's flute over orchestra which is the only part really reminiscent of Daphnis and Chloe. The Naïad's music reminded me of Holst's Rig Veda choral hymns. Della Jones is, perhaps, a little too weighty in the Pigeon song - it is not meant to be this profound. The instrumental Finale is followed by a choral postlude - The shepherd's night song. Altogether this is a delightful piece of nearly 34 minutes and it is by no means a lightweight fill-up to complete the disc.

There are not many companies promoting the music of Bliss and we should be profoundly grateful to Chandos for providing this excellent anthology at such a reasonable price.

Strongly recommended.


Len Mullenger


Len Mullenger

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