Patrick C Waller
, November 2004
"The Maggini Quartet’s series of British Chamber Music for Naxos continues with a third volume of music by Arthur Bliss. To date their coverage also includes Bax, Bridge, Britten, Elgar, Moeran, Vaughan Williams and Walton. At bargain price this is a veritable treasure trove. The Magginis seem to be incapable of making a dud disc and this latest offering is no exception.
Bliss wrote two numbered string quartets. He also withdrew an early unnumbered quartet in A major which was written whilst serving on the Western Front. Here we have his last in the genre, written for the Griller Quartet not long before he became Master of the Queen’s Musick. The A major work and No. 1 are part of volume 1 of this series, and there seems to have been another unnumbered one written in 1923-4 which, as far as I am aware, is unrecorded (see links below to volume 1 and an article on Bliss from which a catalogue of his works may be accessed).
In four movements and lasting just over half an hour, the basic format of the second quartet is almost classical and certainly breaks no new ground for the mid-20th century. The composer considered it his most substantial chamber work. I don’t find this as obviously "British" as the chamber music of any the composers listed above. Bliss was apparently half-American and married a lady from across the Atlantic but there’s not much obvious American influence either. What is not in doubt is that the work is well-crafted and melodious. The first movement is both dramatic and spirited. It is followed by a fairly short slow movement marked sostenuto. The third movement is, in effect, a scherzo (but not marked as such), lively with a quizzical ending. The finale starts with a plaintive slow introduction with a notable viola solo. This leads to an Allegro that asks many questions before partially resolving them in a series of chords, the last of which is in a major key.
Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet was written nearly twenty years earlier. It was inspired by Frederick Thurston who gave the first performance at the composer’s home with the Kutcher Quartet. Although dedicated to fellow composer Bernard van Dieren, it has also been considered a tribute to his brother, a clarinettist, who was killed in the first world war. Better known than the quartets, it is widely considered to be one of his finest works. Opening with a magical clarinet solo, the first movement is poignant at a moderate tempo. The second movement is a kind of scherzo full of contrasting moods. This is followed by a deeply expressive adagietto (now where have I heard that before?), actually the longest part of the work. In the finale the tension is released and doubts are only intermittent before a jaunty conclusion is reached. David Campbell gives a fine performance on the A clarinet, apparently specified by the composer for its silkier tones.
What can one say about the Maggini’s playing? Probably not much that hasn’t been said before. Accurate, alive, beautifully integrated, natural, invariably capturing the spirit of the music. As ever, they are aided by an excellent recording with just the right ambience. Potton Hall is a very suitable recording location for such music and it is sad to hear that the owner, Alan Foster, died whilst this recording was being made. It is dedicated to him.
The splendid picture on the booklet cover is called Sunset at Herne Hill through the smoke of London and was painted by John Ruskin in 1876. Inside there is an excellent essay on Bliss and the music by Andrew Burn. Somehow I managed to miss, and need to catch up with, the second volume in this series (see links below) containing the Oboe Quintet, Piano Quartet and Viola Sonata. Certainly, this disc lives up to expectations and is not to be missed."