BLISS: Oboe Quintet / Piano Quartet / Viola Sonata

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Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)Piano Quartet Sonata for Viola and Piano Oboe QuintetArthur Bliss belongs to the generation of English composerswho came to maturity in the years between the two World Wars. It was once theaccepted view that he had moved from the modernism of the 1920s into a moreconventional Elgarian romanticism. It is only now, in a new century, that it isproving possible to see his work in a truer perspective.            Theson of a New England businessman and his amateur pianist wife, Arthur Bliss wasborn in London in 1891. He and his brothers were brought up by their father,after the early death of their mother. Educated at Rugby and then at PembrokeCollege, Cambridge, where he was a pupil of Charles Wood and came to knowEdward Dent, he spent a year at the Royal College of Music, before joining thearmy, in which he served from 1914 until demobilisation in 1919. At the RoyalCollege he was a contemporary of Herbert Howells, whose talent he particularlyadmired, and of Eugene Goossens, Ivor Gurney and Arthur Benjamin, but hadlittle in common with Stanford, his teacher. As an officer in the RoyalFusiliers and later in the Grenadier Guards, Bliss shared the horrors of trenchwarfare, wounded, later gassed, and mentioned in despatches. His brotherKennard was killed in action, a loss Bliss felt keenly.            Inthe years after the war Bliss began to make a name for himself in London,writing music that occasionally provoked a hostile reaction from conservativecritics. Works of his were heard abroad, and his A Colour Symphony,commissioned by Elgar, together with works by Howells and Goossens, was playedat the Three Choirs Festival in 1922, although not on that occasion to his ownsatisfaction. He spent the years 1923 and 1924 in America with his father andhis brother Howard and in 1925 married, before returning with his wife toEngland, to engage once more in composition, largely neglected during his stayabroad.             Oftendrawing inspiration from distinguished performers, in the summer of 1939 Blissfound himself in New York, where the pianist Solomon was to give the firstperformance of the composer's new Piano Concerto at the World's Fair. Acceptingan opportune invitation to teach at Berkeley, he returned to England in 1941 toserve as Director of Music with the BBC from 1942 until 1944. The years broughtfilm and ballet scores, and after the war collaboration with J.B.Priestley onthe opera The Olympians. In 1950 Bliss received a knighthood and three yearslater he succeeded Arnold Bax as Master of the Queen's Musick, thereaftercontributing the expected ceremonial pieces demanded by his office. At the sametime there was a series of major works, including a Violin Concerto in 1955 forAlfredo Campoli, and a Cello Concerto in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich, givenits first performance under Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. One ofhis last works, commissioned for the quincentenary of St George's Chapel, Windsor,was his 1974 Shield of Faith, a setting of an anthology of poems that he wasnever to hear. It continued a genre he had explored earlier, notably in 1930 inMorning Heroes, an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of war. He died in March1975.             Woundedon active service in France in 1916, Bliss was transferred once again toEngland and in 1917 found himself posted to Prior Park in Bath as an instructorto cadet officers. It was in Bath that a performance was arranged of his PianoQuartet, completed in 1915 and dedicated to his friend Lily Henkel and herquartet, published, thanks to his father and Eugene Goossens, by Novello. Thefirst movement opens in a pastoral mood, the thematic material, with its echoesof folk-song, subjected to further development, as the movement proceeds, in astyle in many ways typical of English music of the period. There is a brief andattractive Intermezzo, before the lively final Allegro furioso bursts in.            Oneof the players in the first performance of the Piano Quartet, at a WarEmergencies Concert in London in April 1915, was the great viola-player LionelTertis: it was through Tertis that Bliss was inspired, in 1933, to write aviola sonata that the composer gradually came to see rather in terms of aconcerto for the instrument than as a chamber work. Tertis first played thesonata at a private gathering in May at Bliss's house at Hampstead Heath withthe pianist Solomon, while William Walton turned the pages. Tertis and Solomongave the first public performance in November at a BBC Chamber Concert, andTertis relates how he gave a later performance for the BBC with Rubinstein, whohad arrived on the morning of the recital, unperturbed by a rough crossing fromthe Hook of Holland. Rubinstein read the score at sight and in the evening gavean impeccable performance. The sonata makes use of the fullest possible rangeof the viola, offering a particular challenge in the highest register. Tertis,when asked by the violist Frederick Riddle how he managed the final ascent tothe heights at the end of the Furiant, claimed that the Lord alone knew.Nevertheless he went on in his autobiography to explain his habit of practisingsuch difficulties in a moth-eaten old fur coat, after which feats of this kindin the concert hall became relatively easy.            Thefirst movement of the Viola Sonata makes much use of a three-note descendingfigure and of shifts between implied major and minor in complex and variedtextures that explore the lyrical and technical possibilities of the viola. Thesecond movement is introduced by the plucked notes of the muted viola, oversustained piano chords. A brief chordal passage leads to a melody markedAndante poco maestoso and sonore. Both elements return in the conclusion of aparticularly lyrical movement. To this the Furiant provides an immediatecontrast, impelled forward in its headlong and technically demanding course.The final Coda offers cadenza-like passages, first for the viola and then forthe piano, bringing reminiscences of what has passed, particularly of the firstmovement.            Blissmet Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in America in 1925. He greatly admired herattitude to musicians, patronage and understanding of music generally,dedicating the first of his Two interludes for piano to her that year. He was thereforedelighted to accept her commission for the Oboe Quintet for her Venice Festivalof 1927, and the work, inspired by the playing of Leon Goossens, was played inVenice by Goossens and the Venetian Quartet, to be repeated in Vienna, where itwon the praise of Alban Berg. The violins, in thirds, open the first movement,its general serenity broken by a passage marked Allegro assai agitato butfinally restored with the return of a secondary theme and a whisperedconclusion. Melodic interest centres on the oboe in the opening of the secondmovement. An Allegro moderato brings a change of metre and mood, the openingfirst violin phrase echoed by the viola. Peace returns and the movement ends asit had begun. The strings unite in the forceful opening of the final Vivace,the melodic line taken up by the oboe. The music leads to Connelly's Jig, soindicated in the score, motifs from which become fragmented, mingling with theopening material of the movement, before the final oboe display with which thequintet ends.Keith Anderson
Disc: 1
Oboe Quintet
1 Poco adagio e espressivo
2 Intermezzo: Tempo di Mazurka
3 Allegro furioso
4 Moderato
5 Andante
6 Furiant
7 Coda
8 Assai sostenuto - Allegro assai agitato
9 Andante con moto
10 Vivace
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