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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Music for Strings (1935) [26:36]
Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) [33:39]
A Prayer to the Infant Jesus for unaccompanied women’s voices* (1968) [5:38]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Hugo Rignold
Ambrosian Singers/Philip Ledger*
rec. January 1966, Kingsway Hall, London (except A Prayer to the Infant Jesus)
LYRITA SRCD.254 [65:59]

This is a notable release for several reasons. It restores to the catalogue fine performances of two major orchestral works by Bliss – and, in the case of the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, the première recording of the work. But in addition it offers us a welcome reminder of the often-underrated work done with the CBSO by Hugo Rignold during his time as the orchestra’s chief conductor. Rignold (1905-1976) was at the helm of the CBSO between 1960 and 1968. Before that he had held posts with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and at the Royal Ballet, amongst others. During his career he made a fair number of recordings but I was rather surprised to learn that these two pieces were the only ones that he recorded commercially with the CBSO during his tenure of their podium. I am indebted to Beresford King-Smith, the CBSO archivist, for this information.

Mr. King-Smith also tells me that the original Lyrita LP release of these two Bliss works was the first LP cut by the orchestra. It’s rather surprising that the orchestra, which has made so many recordings, especially in the Rattle era, should have had to wait until 1966 to make its first LP. I suspect this may reflect how London-centric the recording industry was in those days. It will be noted that these particular recordings were made not in Birmingham but in London, presumably because the logistics of recording in the capital were then much more efficient and cost-effective for a small company such as Lyrita.

This was typically enterprising repertoire for Lyrita. Bliss has become tolerably well represented on record since the mid 1960s – though his music is still terribly neglected in our concert halls – but I doubt there were many Bliss entries in the catalogue in those days. So hats off to Lyrita for recording two very fine works back in 1966. And hats off to Hugo Rignold, the CBSO and the engineers who captured these performances for combining to make recordings that can more than hold their own, sonically and artistically, over forty years on.

Music for Strings was perhaps Bliss’s first masterpiece and it remains one of his finest compositions. It was first heard at the 1935 Salzburg Festival when Sir Adrian Boult conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a programme of British music that also included Job, by Vaughan Williams. At the rehearsals of the Bliss piece the distinguished leader of the VPO, Arnold Rosé, was heard to mutter "Schwer, schwer [difficult] – aber gut!" That seems to me to be a pretty apt and discerning verdict.

The first of the three movements contains a good deal of what Frank Howes calls, in his note, "bounding energy." Much of the music is sprightly and somewhat angular but above all it sounds ideally conceived for a string orchestra. The music does relax at times, especially towards the end, but the tension doesn’t slacken even in those passages. The movement ends in tranquillity, a mood that is carried over into the second movement, which follows without a break. Gradually the mood intensifies and by about 2:00 the character has definitely become more searching. Bliss called this movement "a sensuous romance, a rhapsody both tender and intense." It’s very well played by the CBSO.

The finale is another athletic creation, although the short introduction sounds almost tentative. However, after about 1:00 the music bounds along in compound time and there’s much energy and good humour. In the closing pages the pace picks up significantly and this fine and enjoyable work ends emphatically.

Sir Arthur recorded the work himself with the Philharmonia, also in the Kingsway Hall in 1954. He was present at these CBSO sessions and Beresford King-Smith, who was also present as the orchestra’s concert manager, tells me that Sir Arthur confided that the CBSO players had "made a better job" of his piece than had the Philharmonia. Hugo Rignold was, of course, a violinist himself and Mr King-Smith says he had "worked really hard with the Birmingham players." I suspect that this may be at the heart of Sir Arthur’s comparison together with the fact that Rignold was a much more familiar conductor to his players than Sir Arthur would have been to the Philharmonia. Having listened to both recordings I wouldn’t care to make a choice – and the EMI sound for the Philharmonia is much less flattering. However, the key fact is that this Rignold recording received the composer’s approval, and rightly so for it is a fine achievement.

I hope Sir Arthur was equally pleased with the recording of the Meditations. This is a work I’ve long admired and which I really got to know through the excellent recording made for EMI by Vernon Handley in 1979, when the orchestra was again the CBSO. The orchestra’s connection with the work goes back even further than these recordings for it was a Feeney Trust commission for the CBSO that gave Bliss the opportunity to write the work in the first place and they gave its first performance in 1955. Bliss was inspired by coming across a book of anthems by the English composer, John Blow (1649-1708). He was struck in particular by the tune in Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ The resulting work could be called a double meditation, for it meditates on both the tune itself and on the Psalm and several of the eight sections of the piece are related directly to a section of the Psalm. It has always seemed to me that the music often inhabits the same spiritual domain and sound world as does Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The extended introduction begins in a pastoral vein, with oboe and flutes prominent. Sheeps’ bells can also be heard in the distance. Before long more violent music interjects forcefully, with braying brass often to the fore. Blow’s tune is partially revealed several times.

The first Meditation is subtitled ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’. It’s a flowing variant, lightly and transparently scored. In the words of the composer Ruth Gipps "Blow’s theme is glimpsed like smooth rocks seen through the ripples." This is followed by the second Meditation in which sturdy, vigorous music illustrates ‘Thy rod and staff they comfort me.’ In this section the music projects strength and confidence.

The third Meditation is entitled ‘The Lambs’ and once more Bliss reverts to delicate scoring. This mainly quiet movement illustrates quite delightfully the innocent lambs gambolling in a meadow. It’s beautifully played by the CBSO, whose woodwind players distinguish themselves. By contrast, the next section. ‘He restoreth my soul’ is much more robust, driven on by triplet rhythms and with brass, percussion and chattering winds all prominent in the orchestration. The precision and rhythmic acuity of the Rignold and the CBSO are much to be admired here.

This is followed by ‘In green pastures’. Inevitably Bliss is once again in pastoral mode for this gently romantic section. However, at the very end the brass and percussion introduce a note of menace. In the Interlude that follows Bliss takes us ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’. Here the music is at its darkest and most violent – and Bliss’s orchestration, superb throughout the piece, is at its most inventive. This is biting, often violent music. There’s menace and evil here, and as Bliss takes his listeners through the Valley dangers lurk on every side. The orchestration is vivid and evocative and Rignold’s players respond with relish, power and conviction.

But then we have passed through the Valley and the trombones solemnly intone the start of Blow’s tune. The melody is moved from voice to voice and register to register within the orchestra while the strings and woodwind dance joyfully round the theme in syncopated rhythms. Then at last the full brass intone the tune in all its glory, busily decorated by the upper strings. It’s a moment worth waiting for, as Blow’s melody is revealed, at its apotheosis, as Yeoman English, sturdy, foursquare and reliable. It’s a stirring moment and Rignold and his players make it count. Bliss has one more ace up his sleeve, however. Instead of ending the work in an obvious blaze of glory he eases back and brings the music full circle to the gentle, pastoral mood of the opening. There is, in his words, "one more premonition of peril, but the final chord brings complete assurance."

From my description of the piece you may have gathered that I think it’s a very fine one. At every turn I find it inventive and musically interesting. The scoring is imaginative, colourful and varied. I’m mystified, and saddened, that we don’t hear it more often.

This Rignold recording comes into competition with Handley’s version, set down some thirteen years later. In truth I find it difficult, if not impossible, to establish a preference for one over the other. Both are very fine and are extremely well played and, in my view, do full justice to the work. A few pointers may help collectors. On my equipment the Handley recording sounds a bit warmer than the Rignold and I heard even more detail – not that the Lyrita shortchanges the listener in this respect. However, the slightly greater warmth of the EMI recording is compensated by a degree of greater bite on Lyrita. One great advantage of the Lyrita recording is that it is divided into eight tracks, whereas, at least on the original CD issue, the EMI recording was confined to one single track.

The Lyrita disc has a charming filler in the shape of the lovely little piece for female voices. Though no recording date is currently available I assume it comes from the same sessions as Ledger’s recording of The world is charged with the glory of God (SRCD 225 )

This may have been the only commercial recording by Hugo Rignold and the CBSO but it is hard to imagine a better souvenir of their partnership. They serve with distinction two splendid works by Bliss. The sound is up to Lyrita’s usual high Kingsway Hall standards and the excellent notes are by Frank Howes and, in the case of Meditations, by the composer himself. This is another wonderful Lyrita restoration.

John Quinn

See also review by Michael Cookson


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