BLISS conducts BLISS = The Beatitudes; Introduction and Allegro; Suite from “Things to Come”; Pastoral: “Lie Strewn the White Flocks”; A Colour Symphony, Op. 24; March: The Phoenix – Soloists/ London Sym. Orch./ Philharmonia Orch. – Dutton (2 CDs)

by | Aug 15, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BLISS conducts BLISS = The Beatitudes; Introduction and Allegro; Suite from “Things to Come”; Pastoral: “Lie Strewn the White Flocks”; A Colour Symphony, Op. 24; March: The Phoenix – Jennifer Vyvyan, sop./ Richard Lewis, tenor/ BBC Sym. Orch./ The Festival Choir/ London Sym. Orch. (Intro. and Allegro and Things to Come)/ Nancy Evans, mezzo-sop./ Gareth Morris, flute/ Henry Taylor, timpani/ Jacques String Orch./ Reginald Jacques (Pastoral)/ London Sym. Orch. (Color Sym.)/ Philharmonia Orch./ Constant Lambert (March) – Dutton 2 CDBP 9818 (2 CDs), 76:20, 70:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Dutton assembles a series of recordings made under the aegis of the Bliss Trust 1946-1962 by composer Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) and several of his devoted conductors, including the esteemed Constant Lambert (1905-1951) in the March: The Phoenix (29 March 1946) dedicated to the spirit of France, recently risen from the ashes of WW II by dint of the courageous leadership of General Charles de Gaulle.  Typical of Lambert, the March exudes proud swagger and assertive optimism.

The Beatitudes was conceived as a 50-minute, fifteen-movement cantata to celebrate the Coventry Festival (25 May 1962), when Bliss occupied the position “Master of the Queen’s Musick.” The live performance from the Coventry Theatre captures the valedictory quality of the occasion, meant to mark the consecration of Sir Basil Spence’s modern Cathedral that would replace the bombed-out shell of the old Cathedral. The composition found a potent rival in Britten’s War Requiem, which received greater publicity. Bliss chose poetry by Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Jeremy Taylor, and Dylan Thomas – metaphysical poets all – along with Biblical texts, opening with the Orchestral Prelude: A Troubled World (Allegro violento). The ensuing movement, The Mount of Olives, is set as an antiphonal psaltery between tenor, soprano and chorus, supported by modal brass and strings. George Herbert’s Easter, marked Vivo, rings with triumphant authority. The Lofty Looks of Man Shall be Humbled, a dire warning about the Sin of Pride, Bliss adapted from Isaiah II, 10-20.  The setting of Dylan Thomas’ And Death Shall Have No Dominion (Allegro) proves effective. Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis, two favorite voices whom Thomas Beecham often utilized for his own large choral productions, blend marvelously well.

The 1926 Introduction and Allegro owes its origins to Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who performed it in 1928, but without much enthusiasm. Scored for a large ensemble, the piece exerts some powerful energies, often reminiscent of contrapuntal Shostakovich though set in form close to Elgar. Bliss leads a resonant London Symphony Orchestra studio performance from 23-24 November 1955. The texture of the work thins out temporarily, enough to allow some light to penetrate; and even the busy counterpoint sheds some of its former heavy cloak. The writing for high winds, brass, strings, harp, and tympani becomes quite virtuosic. As an orchestral showpiece or “toccata,” the work proves effective, in the manner of Walton’s Partita for Orchestra or Einem’s Capriccio.

Alexander Korda’s film version of Things to Come (1936), after the novel by H.G. Wells, required a suite which Wells himself scrutinized, convinced that the score would serve in a Wagnerian mode of thematic leitmotifs. The film, starring Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, and Cedric Hardwicke, forecasts world war and space flight, leading to the establishment of a world dominion, “Wings Over the World,” that ushers in a promise of salvation. In five relatively brief movements, the Suite (rec. 17 June 1957) by Bliss exhibits a pungent militarism, culminating in the famous March. [We recently reviewed the film.]

The Bliss Pastoral: “Lie Strewn the White Flocks” (1928) is dedicated to Edward Elgar, modestly scored by Bliss for strings, flute, and tympani, and chorus, perhaps in the hope that its means would attract small ensembles with limited fiscal resources.  Bliss takes his libretto from British poets and Classical sources in English translation: Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Theocritus, and Ambrogini. In nine movements, the piece literally celebrates “nymphs and shepherds” by means of a nine-movement pageant in honor of Pan, Pan and Echo, and Naiads. Yet the pagan erotic allegory yields to the Christian sensibility in the final two movements, The Song of the Reapers and the Finale: The Shepherd’s Night Song.  Reginald Jacques (1894-1969) leads his own Jacques String Orchestra and BBC Chorus (10 January 1951) in a performance quite attuned to color nuances and the delicate balance of the vocalists and instrumental timbres.

Edward Elgar commissioned A Colour Symphony from Bliss for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester.  Elgar found the completed composition “disturbingly modern.” The four movements proceed like an old-style Baroque sonata: slow-fast, slow-fast, the finale being a fugue. The color scheme assigned to the movements – Purple for Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty and Death; Red for Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage, and Magic; Blue for Sapphires, Deep Water, Skies, Loyalty and Melancholy; Green for Emeralds, Hope, Joy, Youth, Spring and Victory  –  soon reveals balletic impulses. Bliss revised the work in 1932, the version Bliss inscribes here (23-24 November 1955). The Blue movement (Gently flowing) makes some lovely points for Bliss the melodist. The fugal conclusion sounds quite British, its learned and playful counterpoint solidly in the heroic tradition Bliss inherited from Elgar, despite the potent harmonic syntax.

—Gary Lemco

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