About this Recording
8.553383 - BLISS: Cello Concerto / Music for Strings / Two Studies
English 

Arthur Bliss (1891 -1975)

Arthur Bliss (1891 -1975)

Two Studies

Music for Strings

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

 

Within months of the end of the Great War, Arthur Bliss exploded onto a music scene that for something like sixty years he successively outraged, intrigued, transformed, enriched, guided and graced. A striking series of 'experiments in sound' divided the critics and gripped the public, a period recalled by that great Bliss enthusiast Benjamin Brit ten in a letter to the senior composer on his 75th birthday:

 

My dear Arthur,

When one is very young, tales of one elder's youthful exploits set one's sympathy vibrating strongly... In my boyhood you, Arthur, were the avant gardist of Rout, Conversations and daring, possibly apocryphal Parisian exploits. You were almost a myth. ...For me still, the zestful avant gardist peeps out of the silvery halo of to-day. Happy you who can preserve youthful exuberance without youthful immaturity!

 

On this compact disc we can enjoy works from both periods, that of experiment and silvery halo'd youthful maturity, together with a quintessential masterpiece from the height of his commanding powers.

 

Few things that are not bad for my health or morals give me more pleasure than to see the Two Studies, his very first orchestral composition, recorded. Not only are they a delight which throws light on an exciting period of Bliss's work, but a delight many of us never expected to enjoy.


Bliss was discharged from the army in February 1919, having endured a war in which he was wounded, gassed, earned recommendations for gallantry decorations, witnessed inconceivable slaughter and atrocities, saw many friends slain and lost a brother with whom he had been extremely close. He was then 28, naturally a late developer, with his youth poisoned, his family shattered, and with a harrowingly acquired, spurious maturity. He did what many another artist did to preserve his sanity: he went on a kind of binge, cramming his days with travel, lecturing, conducting, performing, reviewing and composing a succession of ground-breaking scores. He forged a highly personal style, while encountering the best European composers on level terms and establishing a British equivalent.

 

Amongst the catalogue of idiosyncratic, rather subversive works are these Studies, written at some speed to meet a deadline for submissions to the Royal College of Music's 'Patrons' Fund Concerts' - semi-public open rehearsal/performances, and one of the few openings for orchestral works by new composers. Bliss conducted the first performance on 17th February, 1921. They were heard perhaps twice more before disappearing from sight for over half a century. Stylistically, Bliss was then the outsider, with neither sympathy nor sense of belonging as regards any of the current British musical schools. It was to the continent that he looked, and to France that he went, to perform, in November 1919. The composer Josef Holbrooke had masterminded a trip to Paris where both composer-pianists were to play their respective Piano Quintets at a pair of concerts. The enterprise degenerated into a combination of farce and debacle (nothing apocryphal about that exploit), but a concert of sorts eventually was given, where Bliss met Milhaud and established an immediate rapport. He also lunched with Ravel, whom he revered. He returned to London with his head buzzing, and the stimulus of Les Six and the vibrant Paris arts scene must have resonated in his mind as he worked on this score.

 

The first study, Adagio ma non troppo is a beautifully poised, cool pastoral, at the same time lyrically touching but unsentimental. For a first orchestral work the craftsmanship is astonishing: deft, assured and restrained, the atmospheres precisely imagined and conveyed. Melodies unfold effortlessly, the invention is fecund, the harmonies logical but piquant. The climax is perfectly placed -his timing was spot-on from the outset and never left him - the colours clear, limpid but subdued, like a Corot landscape that has stood perhaps overlong in the sun; poignant, evocative and under control. If some scholar discovered it to be a lost sketch from Ravel's Mother Goose, say, few would argue, though it has more an echo of his Rhapsody (1919). In the second, we are more in the areas of Rout. It is a brief, spirited, genial lampoon, putting its thumb to its nose as it romps through a modest catalogue of new-music targets: the Chinoiserie pentatonic tune, the coarse percussion outburst, the vulgar trombone whoop, but done with the humour of indulgence - he had a sneaking fondness for such things himself.

 

During the 1920s, Bliss took the manuscript back, presumably to make revisions.

Other matters must have pressed, however, and so comprehensively did he forget he had it that when his publisher's warehouse was destroyed by a bomb in World War II, he was convinced the Studies had gone with it. It was only after his death that the manuscript surfaced from his papers, where it had lain all the time. The Piano Quintet was less fortunate.

 

With one mystery solved, another appears, the title-page reading Studies for full Orchestra Nos. 2 & 3. If there was, or was to have been, a 'No.1' we can only speculate. My guess is that it was written, and withdrawn as a result of Bliss's session with Holst their conversation as reported in Arthur's autobiography is clearly about a work that is neither of the surviving pieces. It would have had to be an Allegro moderato, more dramatic than the existing first study, less flippant than the second and longer than either, and it probably ended up recycled into something else. Strangely enough there is exactly such a work, also dating from 1921. It is called Melee Fantasque.

 

In the years leading up to Music for Strings Bliss covered an enormous distance stylistically, emotionally, intellectually - and geographically. Gone is the disarming innocence of the Studies, blown away by his experiences working with the crack American orchestras, replaced by a sophisticated, bravura flair, though with no loss of freshness. The source of its greatness lies deeper than that, in more spiritual realms: Bliss, the trai11ed, convinced classicist, valuing structure and proportion above gesture and rhetoric, competing with Bliss the theatre-lover, the romantic, fond of dramatic statement and direct expression. You will find few more successful products of such confrontation of classic and romantic, of passion amplified by discipline. Initially he conceived it as an essay into pure, absolute music, and when commentators described it as an overtly romantic work, he did not quite know whether to take it as a compliment or not. There was also growing in him the realisation that when you are trying to say something new, not only do you not really need an experimental language, it can actually get in the way. He had learned what he wanted from experiment, and walked away from it with a smile. His war memories he could not walk away from.

 

His path lay in the sunshine, but his glance turned ever towards the shadows.

Nightmares recurred and the ghosts would not quite depart - work-therapy was only partly effective and for all the joyous, life-affirming pieces there was always a feeling of a job left undone. Attempts to grapple with this pepper his catalogue, a set of (never completed) Battle Variations for orchestra, the Suite for piano and Hymn to Apollo dealing either overtly or obliquely with the problem. Resolution, as he supposed, came most powerfully in the great choral symphony Morning Heroes and most poignantly and privately with the sublime Clarinet Quintet. For many months thereafter he wrote little that was not small-scale for small ensembles, as if he were re-grouping his forces for some great thrust. This thrust, when it came, was impressive - two, simultaneously composed, of his most characteristic, commanding, outstanding works: Things to Come and Music for Strings. Their feeling of release, of liberatedness, is overwhelming.

 

Music for Strings was commissioned for the 1935 Salzburg Festival, at which distinctly romantic setting Adrian Boult conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the first performance on 11th August. London heard it, appropriately, on Fireworks Night (5th November) the same year. It is arguably Bliss's finest work, as is Elgar's Introduction and Allegro his, and the choice of medium - massed strings - may have been influenced by his starting work on it only weeks after the death of Elgar, a composer with whom he had a long, close, sometimes stormy but essentially cordial relationship, professionally and as a friend. The works themselves have more than a passing similarity of spirit and shape, though this should not be overstated. The opening, Allegro moderato, energico (with the emphasis on the 'energico') immediately sets the mood: flamboyant virtuoso in an extended sonata-form, a thing of swaggering themes interrupted by heavy chords, propelled through several keys by a vigorous bass-line underpinning supple, extensively subdivided part-writing to produce a rich, saturated sound and sharply etched lines. The progressive tonality has a fierce logic that permits numerous little asides and discursions without damaging the structural line. He is in total control of highly elaborate material. A quintet of soloists introduces a bridge passage joining this movement to the next, Andante, molto

sostenuto, which the ever modest composer dismisses with the single word 'rhapsodic'. Rhapsodic it certainly is, but never merely pastoral or predictable. It is mostly in compound time; nine, twelve, fifteen, even eighteen quavers to the bar keeping the theme moving, as it is transformed with infinite resource and subtlety and separated by episodes.

 

Astonishingly, the last movement manages to outdo the first in its bravura of both structural organisation and expressive force. An elaborate introduction of varied speeds and metres presents the material which develops throughout, the movement being made up of several sections, distinct in mood and treatment, thematically closely related, giving the benefits of sonata, variation and metamorphosis techniques. Like the opening movement, the climax is marked by a pedal-point, but here followed by passages of ever increasing tempo, maintaining tension and heightening excitement through the final presto, and an emphatic, peremptory two-bar coda of the movement's opening figure – a masterstroke to leave the listener breathless, to say nothing of the performers.

 

As with the Studies, but for different reasons, we are lucky to have the Cello Concerto, which belongs to a late group of works that Bliss never intended writing. When he drew the double bar line to The Golden Cantata (1963) he intended it as much to his whole career as to a single piece. "1 find my ability to concentrate is now less," he wrote, "my joy in writing music on the wane", and for the next five or so years he wrote nothing but personal miniatures and 'official pieces' in his capacity as Master of the Queen's Music. Creative fires are not so easily quelled though, and a niggling fascination with the poetry of Kathleen Raine, whom he had set in the cantata, coaxed him back to the score-paper to produce, unprompted, a major song-cycle (Angels of the Mind) in 1969. The damage was done of course, and he could no longer pretend to have stopped composing when requests arrived through his letter-box. He could, on the other hand, choose very carefully what he did write. Two such commissions came from the Aldeburgh Festival, a cantata for chorus, brass and organ, and the Cello Concerto, officially - and genuinely - from Rostropovich, but stage-managed by Britten, who conducted the first performance at the festival in June 1970.

 

Bliss wrote four concertos (that survive to us) at a rate of about one every fifteen years, give or take the odd month, and they are all absolutely touchstones of his work at every stage of his composing life. Surprisingly maybe, the two at the extremes of his career have more in common with each other that with the massive concerti for piano and for violin whose sweep and grandeur of vision would have been i11imical to their succinct elegance. The first, for two pianos, might easily have been called 'Concertino', while this piece actually was, and billed as such at the first performance. It may seem odd that a twenty- five minute work of taxing technical demands should be given this diminutive, self-effaci11g title, and both conductor and soloist/ dedicatee prevailed on Bliss to re-name it, but you can see exactly what he meant. It is not about confrontation, making grand gestures or pitting ideas or textures against each other, and its spirit is indeed one of lightness, which does not mean triviality. Ideas work with, not against, each other. While often forthright, it is intimate and conversational, seldom raising its voice; it celebrates being alive and tells of gentle sunlight and dappled shade. Britten will have recognized the "youthful vigour without youthful immaturity" when he conducted it, the classical balance and design, with the force generated by authentic thematic working and structure, which is compatible with restraint. The scoring is economical and resourceful, dapper almost, the movements cross-referenced and through-composed with stealth and subtlety.

 

Bliss was quite open about his need for a specific stimulus to arouse his creative powers, in the case of a concerto a specific player and, for all Rostropovich's involvement with the commission, one is bound to wonder if it did not stir other memories, of a distant, happy time before the Great War, and a more remote soloist. Might the real spur for this work have been his brother Howard, a distinguished cellist in his own right with recordings to his name in the 78 rpm era, and with whom Arthur had long ago played the great recital works of the repertoire? Perhaps not, but I do wonder... The reflectiveness behind the high-spirited sections, the warmth in the wistfulness, seem to tell us something...

 

Enough of this: there are three movements, as befits a classical concerto, of which the first, by far the most extended, is based on robust, expansive material, leaping intervals and dotted, characteristic Bliss rhythms which, in various states of development, permeate the whole work. The second is tender, perhaps slightly sad, an interplay of muted tones and little private dialogues between soloist and wind instruments, sometimes horns. It is mostly in compound time and triplets, and would be a lullaby except that it will not settle. The third is a coming-together of disparates, mostly athletic or puckish, with almost a cabaret of rapid mood and metre changes and a contrasting sostenuto section that genuinely touches the heart, albeit gently - lyrical but not sentimental - before the very opening theme bursts back upon us and a Vivo coda precipitates us to the conclusion The "joy in writing" shines out of almost every bar.

 

On the face of it, the Concerto does almost everything soloists hate: they play a strenuously demanding part calling for the uttermost of technique and finesse, offering very little opportunity for display but affording every chance to make mistakes. They do this for a long time, with scarcely a bar's rest, and for the most part severely exposed. There are pitfalls galore, no hiding places and very little glory. And yet, not one player have I met with a bad word to say about it.

 

@ 1996 Giles Easterbrook

 

 

 


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