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John Quinn
MusicWeb International, March 2013

Throughout the [Metamorphic Variations]…the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra seems on top of its collective game. They have all the necessary tonal resources for Bliss’s fully-scored sections such as ‘Funeral Procession’ and the opening pages of the concluding section, ‘Affirmation’. Perhaps even more admirable…is their work in the more exposed, lightly scored passages. Thus we can enjoy some fine solo work by the woodwinds in ‘Interjections’, some excellent playing in ‘Cool Interlude’ and some especially good contributions from the leader and the principal cello in ‘Duet’…

The performance of Meditations on a Theme by John Blow is thoroughly convincing…David Lloyd-Jones does the Meditations very well indeed.

This is a fine CD. The playing is very good indeed as is the recorded sound. David Lloyd-Jones’ direction is consistently sure-footed and sympathetic; he’s a splendid and reliable guide to these scores. Giles Easterbrook’s notes are excellent; they introduce the music very well indeed to anyone new to the scores but equally they’re well worth reading by people who know their Bliss. © 2013 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Some Modest Proposals, October 2010

It’s a tidy bit of history that Bliss would be appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, the same year he would encounter John Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Bliss (who had a commission for an orchestral work sitting on his desk) was inspired by one of the tunes in Blow’s setting and composed a set of meditations on the tune.

There are five Meditations, preceded by an Introduction and followed by an Interlude and Finale, each movement illustrates one of the psalm’s verses. The Introduction (“The Lord is my Shepherd – I will fear no evil”) balances brooding dark with softer-hued English pastoral.

The third Meditation “Lambs” is scherzo-like, while the fifth “Green Pastures,” is a gorgeous reverie for harp, winds and strings. The violence of the seventh Meditation “Through the valley of the shadow of death” is peppered with edgy percussion. The Finale “In the house of the Lord” is thrilling with Blow’s tune singing out gloriously.

The Metamorphic Variations were written in 1972 in tribute to the artist George Dannatt. Masterfully orchestrated and filled with shifting moods and tones, this is quite an orchestral showpiece. Yet for all the composer’s creativity and superb craftsmanship, the work does have a certain rambling quality and emotional detachment that makes it less than a revelation for me.

The Bournemouth Symphony plays brilliantly. The delicate wind and string writing in the Meditations comes off beautifully, the brass playing is stellar throughout and the percussionists really bang away in the Variations. The excellent liner notes by Giles Easterbrook are fascinating and the sound quality top-notch.

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, September 2010

Arthur Bliss completed Meditations on a Theme by John Blow in 1955, two years after he became Master of the Queen’s Musick in 1953. His inspiration was Volume VII of Musica Britannica, Coronation Anthems with Strings by John Blow. Bliss was particularly drawn to Blow’s music to Psalm 23, a text he heard all too many times while attending funerals during his service in the Great War. Blow Variations is his second major work drawn from that conflict. The other is Morning Heroes, a work whose composition helped the composer get through the process of grieving for his brother, who died in the war.

The Blow Variations differs from a standard theme and variations in several ways. Each variation—or meditation—alludes to a part of the psalm’s text. The Introduction (‘The Lord is my shepherd’) opens with a beautiful pastorale section replete with “sheep bells”, clear-toned flutes, and woodwinds that represent idyll or good. This gives way to menace or evil, personified by brass-driven music, a parody of Chopin’s funeral march, and a concluding doom-laden passage underlined by timpani. Blow’s theme (part of it resembles the viola solo in Elgar’s In the South) appears about halfway through and then only partly. This is followed by five meditations, an interlude, and a finale. They include a rolling woodwind- dominated ‘leadeth...still waters’, a Mendelssohnian scherzo (‘Lambs’), and a summery, slightly mysterious ‘In Green Pastures’. Snarling woodwinds and growling brass then take us to the interlude, ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’ with its touch of Stravinsky, some jagged rhythms, a lot of percussion, and a burst of optimism introduced by the trombones intoning the Theme. The Finale, ‘In the House of the Lord’, is grandly British, with organ-like scoring that reminds me of ‘EDU’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Only now do we hear Blow’s theme in its entirety.

Metamorphic Variations (1972) is Bliss’s longest purely orchestral work, longer even than Colour Symphony and every bit as interesting. It was inspired by a then uncompleted triptych of paintings called Tantris by George Dannatt that Bliss viewed while visiting the artist’s home. The triptych was a study of Tristan, Isolde, and the goblet that led to their deaths. The paintings and their Wagnerian associations led Bliss to conceive a piece, “based on three elements where motifs are subject to minute change and variation, the narrative into chapters, which reveal all only when heard complete” (annotator Giles Easterbrook). Like the Blow Variations, Metamorphic is not a simple set of variations and is related to a narrative. There is no theme per se, but rather three short elements that combine in various ways through a series of “metamorphic variations” that are titled according to subject or style. The first subtly suggests the long English horn solo of Tristan and Isolde. The second is a short hymn-like motif in the horns; the third is a cluster for woodwinds and horns. The variations vary from kinetic, colorful, and vibrant to quiet and meditative. All are brilliantly orchestrated and creative enough to make one eager to hear what comes next. The final variations make it clear what Bliss was about as they bring his elements and ideas together.

Both performances are well conceived, beautifully played, and nicely recorded. Interpretations are slightly laid back, but there is plenty of energy and muscle when needed. The program is such a natural that I’m surprised I have not seen it on records before...the Naxos pairing is self-recommending. Easterbrook’s notes are the most analytical and clearly written I’ve seen for both pieces.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, August 2010

Bliss’s finest music beautifully played and in superior sound

If Sir Arthur Bliss wrote a finer work than the Meditations on a Theme of John Blow (1955), I would like to hear it. A beautifully balanced set of expanded variations on a theme from the Sinfonia to Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, Bliss’s score is a glowing exhibition of his compositional prowess. Its sequence of Introduction, five Meditations, Interlude and Finale bear superscriptions from the psalm—excepting the scherzando third meditation, “Lambs”—which colour the characters of each section. But, as Giles Easterbrook notes in the booklet, there is a parallel expressive strand running throughout the work, of memorial to the fallen of the Great War in which Bliss had served and his brother was killed. And somehow it achieves greater weight than Morning Heroes.

The inspiration behind Metamorphic Variations (1972) was George Dannatt’s triptych Tantris, based on the Tristan legend. Composed nine years after Bliss’s retirement from large-scale composition, this kaleidoscopic score turned into his largest abstract orchestral piece. Its 14 variations each bear a descriptive title—eg “Ballet”, “Assertion”, “Speculation”—collectively comprising a tour de force of the octogenarian composer’s art.

Meditations has been recorded before: Rignold splendidly on Lyrita, Sir Charles Groves and the RLPO (Carlton—nla) consistently swifter until the Interlude and Finale, Handley (HMV, not I think reissued on CD) impeccably shaped, yet the newcomer is beautifully played, well paced and boasts the finest sound to date. Handley’s BBC SO Metamorphic Variations was coupled with the Groves Meditations and remains the tautest version but Lloyd Jones scores in terms of performance and superior sound. Recommended.

Calum MacDonald
BBC Music Magazine, July 2010

This is certainly a disc that no British music fan should be without.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Bliss wrote of his Meditations on a Theme of John Blow: ‘If I were asked for a few works to represent my life’s music, this would certainly be one of them’. He had been named in 1953 as ‘Master of the Queen’s Musick’, an appointment that fired him with a new enthusiasm. By a twist of fate he had just discovered ‘Coronation Anthems with Strings’ by John Blow, the composer who had held the same post almost three hundred years earlier. It provided an unexpected catalyst to compose the Meditations each drawing further inspiration from quoted words of Psalm 23. If this all sounds sombre and academic, the resulting work is anything but that. Using a normal sized symphony orchestra, the score is dramatic, jagged, dark, joyful and above all carrying hope for a glorious salvation in the House of the Lord. It was completed in 1955, eighteen years before the orchestral showpiece, Metamorphic Variations, which was composed in his eighty-second year. Scored for a large orchestra often used sparingly, it affirmed his lifelong devotion to tonal music with roots back in the works of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Each of the fourteen variations is given a descriptive title, their mood and tempo heavily contrasted, and often calling for solo passages. The disc is conducted by Bliss’s foremost champion, David Lloyd-Jones, his ability to delve deep below the surface of the score having already brought definitive recordings to the catalogue. He has the Bournemouth Symphony in very good form and in excellent sound quality.

John France
MusicWeb International, May 2010

Although it is presented as a set of variations (it was originally entitled Variations for Orchestra) there is a definite feel that this is a ‘string of pearls’ rather than an organic whole. The programme notes suggest that the piece is subtly structured and has strong developmental logic and I am sure that the formal characteristics are well organised. Yet I consider that this work could be better defined as a sequence, leaning towards a ballet score: a contemporary reviewer in The Times suggested that the work would soon attract the attention of the choreographer.

 The Metamorphic Variations was written as a tribute to the artist George Dannatt (1915–2009) and his wife who were personal friends of the composer. The artist’s set of paintings entitled Tantris provided the inspiration for the piece. Dannatt had a cottage in the depths of Wiltshire and it was here that the composer wrote much of the score.

The work was commissioned by the Croydon Arts Festival, was completed in the autumn of 1972 and was first performed by Vernon Handley and the London Symphony Orchestra in April 1973. It is Arthur Bliss’s longest ‘abstract orchestral concert work’.

The composer indicated that there are three themes which are given at the start of the work. He stated that these are ‘Elements’ and undergo considerable transformation as the work progresses. These three ‘Elements’ are a ‘long cantilena for solo oboe’ followed by a ‘two bar phrase for the horns’ and finally a ‘cluster of semitones very close together introduced by the woodwind’.

There is an inherent danger with this work that listeners may spend time trying to spot the influence of a variety of other composers. Certainly, the second variation ‘Ballet’ and the Scherzos are redolent of Igor Stravinsky. The reflective moments may call Delius to mind and the more ceremonial music suggests Elgar or even Walton. Yet the true character of Bliss is often revealed in these pages—none perhaps more obvious than in the final ‘Affirmation’. The heart of the work is surely the ‘Funeral Procession’ which has been regarded as the composer’s final, personal exorcism of the horrors of the Great War.

Whatever may be problematic with the work’s structure and stylistic markers is largely made up for in the sheer imagination of the scoring. The orchestration balances subtlety with a virtuosity that places considerable demands on the players.

In spite of my misgivings, this is an important work that in many ways sums up the composer’s achievement. This present recording is certainly most welcome for all Bliss enthusiasts: the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Lloyd-Jones respond to the superb orchestration and convincingly reflect the variety of mood enshrined in these 14 ‘sections’ or ‘movements’. Naxos in their advertising blurb give an excellent summary of the mood of this music –‘it is a work of extremes, of enormous power, passion and violence balanced by gentleness, whimsy and delicacy.’

Like many listeners of my generation, I first heard the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow on the now elderly Lyrita vinyl recording (SRCS 33 now reissued on SRCD254). It was a work that impressed me then and continues to do so some 35 years later. I recall a Bliss enthusiast telling me that this work was Sir Arthur at his pastoral best. I disagree. Although there is some fine ‘reflective’ and even ‘ruminative’ music in this score, it is not the purpose of the work to propose an English landscape as its thesis. If anything it is cathartic: to my mind it is the landscapes and battlefield wastelands of France that are evoked by the composer who had fought there—not the South Downs on a sunny day. That said, I consider that some of this music may be a soldier’s reminiscence of his homeland whilst laid up in a trench in the Somme or the Marne. In fact, Bliss has written that ‘…if I were asked for a few works that represent my life’s music, this [work] would certainly be one of them.’

John Blow was Composer in Ordinary to King Charles II and as such was a predecessor of Bliss who had been made Master of the Queens Musick in 1953. In that same year the composer was given a copy of Volume VII of Musica Britannica, ‘Coronation and Verse Anthems by John Blow’ (1953). This happened at the same time as he had received a commission from the Feeney Trust for a work for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The story goes that he was so impressed by a particular tune in the ‘sinfonia’ which was a part of Blow’s Psalm 23—‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ that he was compelled to write a set of variations on this melody, with each variation illustrating one of the verses of the Psalm. It is important to note that these Meditations are not a pastiche on music from the age of John Blow: there is no ‘hint of archaism’ in this piece.

The work has an introduction followed by five meditations on ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’, ‘Thy rod and staff they comfort me’, ‘Lambs’, ‘He restoreth my soul’, ‘In green pastures’ followed by an interlude ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’. The work ends triumphantly with a reflection on ‘In the House of the Lord.’

Meditations on a Theme by John Blow was given its first performance in the City Hall, Birmingham by the CBSO conducted by Rudolf Schwarz on 13 December 1955.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this CD. The quality of the sound is superb; the enthusiasm of the orchestra and conductor is palpable. The learned essay by Giles Easterbrook is excellent and gives a detailed analysis of each piece…the present recording is everything a good performance ought to be—demanding, searching and ultimately moving.

BBC Music Magazine

Two of Bliss’s finest orchestral works in strong performances © BBC Music Magazine

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