Monday, December 1, 2014

(Sir) Arthur Bliss - Chamber and Vocal Works - The Nash Ensemble with Elizabeth Gale, Soprano, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Tenor - Lionel Friend, Dir. Hyperion Records 1984

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) is probably best known for his "Colour Symphony", which indeed is the first work that introduced me to Bliss's sound world. This disc of Bliss's chamber music, with the second-to-none Nash Ensemble, is simply a *gem* imo, and my favorite Bliss recording. It richly repays repeated listening, I'd say a good 10,000 times. I think of the program as extremely gorgeous oddities really, and all of the works are full of passion, purpose, much mystery, and sustained fiery inspiration. Knock-out stuff.

In the years around 1920 Bliss explored regularly the sound of intermixed solo strings and wind, with sometimes a harp added: the larger chamber ensemble, you might say, or the chamber orchestra without ripieno strings. It is potentially a most colourful sound (as Britten, following Bliss and others, has demonstrated in our own day), and one which the players themselves can most certainly enjoy making: the strings all given a solo responsibility, the woodwind freed in their solos from the difficulty of penetrating multiple string tone, and the harpist given something worthwhile to play, and allowed to play it audibly.
The genre is very well represented on this record; and the quality of playing suggests that the players did enjoy themselves extremely. All but one piece of the group involve singers. "Madame Noy" is a story of witchery, the group making suitably fearsome sounds at times; but the "Women of Yeuh" are a less ferocious breed, the five poems by Li-Po (a poet whose work also at the time attracted Constant Lambert) describing the characteristics of five girls of southern China. For the "Rhapsody" and for "Rout" Bliss retains the human voice but dispenses with words, perhaps optimistically; for in truth the string of syllabic sounds used in Rout does not differ markedly in intelligibility from normal English when in the hands of some singers! The Rhapsody is luckier, in a sense: here Bliss's demand is for a vocalized ''ah'', allowing the vocal lines to be shown at their best. The only purely instrumental work in the group is (curiously) called "Conversations", five very varied short movements. In one of them, ''I the ballroom'', Bliss invents (nearly 30 years too soon) today's jazz waltz; but the whole suite is not only inventive but highly rewarding.
One major piece stems from slightly later, slightly less actually inventive days: the Oboe Quintet of 1927. This lovely work is given a most expressive performance.

A brief bio for anyone interested:

Sir Arthur Bliss studied music at Cambridge under Charles Wood and at the Royal College of Music in the company of other brilliant students including Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney and Eugene Goosens. His musical studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in which he gave distinguished service but was also wounded in the Battle of the Somme and gassed at Cambrai. The tragic death in battle of his brother, Kennard, together with his own war experiences had a profound and lasting impact on his life and in his music, and found expression most particularly in his choral symphony, Morning Heroes (1930).

After the war Bliss established himself as a composer on the London scene before moving to the USA in the early 1920s to accompany his American father who had retired there. In California he met Gertude Hoffmann, whom he married and brought back to London in 1925. They had two daughters, Barbara and Karen.

In the meantime Bliss the composer continued to flourish, being commissioned to write the cinema's first great film score with the music for Alexander Korda's film of H.G. Wells' Things to come (1935).

In 1941 he became director of music at the BBC, where he established programmes such as "This Week's Composer", still enjoyed today in a similar form. Following his knighthood in 1950 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Musick. In this capacity he composed numerous works and fanfares for royal occasions including the Investiture of the Prince of Wales (1969). He continued composing up until his death at the age of 83.

Arthur Bliss was a prolific and versatile composer and he wrote over 140 works for every combination of voice and instrument, including large scale orchestral and choral works, music for brass bands, chamber instrumental music, songs, operas, ballets and film music. He even found time to indulge his passion for literature and wrote many articles on musical issues which are now collected together in "Bliss on Music".



Anonymous said...

Thanks for introducing me to this artist.

theblueamos said...

Very fantastic!I still need to give it a careful listen,and get back to you.In the meantime all the very best from Jerusalem.

Tabbouche said...

Thanks so much. Love your writing and can't wait to listen to this.

Tzadik said...

Anon you are very welcome, i will post more Bliss soon so check back

Tzadik said...

Hey blue, happy you think so also my friend. Do give it many listens, new and lovely things will be revealed with each experience... Tz

Tzadik said...

Tabbouche hello and thank you for visiting/commenting. I appreciate what you said about reading what I write, sometimes it's tiring as Im quite obsessive (and thus slow!) when writing out my thoughts, however knowing it's appreciated makes me feel very good :) Kind regards, Tz

Toon van Dijk said...

Many thanks and regards from The Netherland.
Veel dank en groeten uit Nederland.

Tzadik said...

Hallo Toon thank you for your comment, happy you like the Bliss. -Tz

Audentity said...

Love the two quintets. "Rout" is also delightful. Thanks!