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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]

For good reason the re-issues of British repertoire from the Lyrita label are receiving almost universal acclaim. I have collected the majority of the Lyrita discs and the high standard of their performance and sound is cause for celebration. The growing number of British music lovers should make these Lyrita releases their first point of call. This is the second of the two Lyrita discs that contain the music of Sir Arthur Bliss. The other one comprises the: Mêlée Fantasque; Rout; Adam Zero Suite; Hymn to Apollo; Serenade and The World is Charged with the Grandeur of God on SRCD.225.

Bliss attended Cambridge University as a pupil of Charles Wood and also studied with Stanford at the Royal College of Music. He did not enjoy the experience of working with Stanford who, "had a devitalising effect" on him (As I Remember by Arthur Bliss. Pub: Faber & Faber, London (1970) SBN 571 09282 9. pp. 28-29). At the RCM, Bliss was surrounded by a number of brilliant fellow students including: Herbert Howells, Arthur Benjamin, Ivor Gurney and Eugene Goossens. Wounded and gassed and also tragically bereaved by the death of his brother Kennard it would be remiss not to mention the devastating and enduring effect that the Great War had on Lieutenant Bliss.

In relation to the prevailing dynamic of the day in Britain, Bliss was considered something of an enfant terrible and an avant-gardist; terms not generally used to describe the RCM cohort. The experimental and intrepid side to Bliss’s music gradually became secondary as his concentration on Romantic idioms increased. Following his knighthood in 1950 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Musick a position that he took seriously and held until his death in 1975.

The first work on the disc, the Music For Strings from 1935, shares a kinship with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 (1905) and Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913, 1919). With a design similar to the other two scores Bliss employs a string orchestra in a concerto grosso form infused with a Romantic character.

The three movement Music for Strings is generally a dark and serious score with dense textures that are brought out superbly by the CBSO under their conductor Hugo Rignold. I found the opening movement especially austere without the memorable quality of themes found in the Elgar and Vaughan Williams scores. The CBSO convey moments of tenderness in the central movement but the warmth is located rather more under the surface. Bliss in the closing movement places increased emphasis on lyricism and as a consequence the music becomes more interesting and appealing. Here the CBSO manage to discover an innate sense of mystery that at times borders on the sinister. The final movement felt as if it would make a splendid stand-alone score.

Bliss composed his Meditations on a Theme by John Blow after being invited to write a work for the City of Birmingham Orchestra. After discovering what he described as a "noble tune" in the psalm ‘The Lord is my Shepherd from an edition of John Blow’s Coronation Anthems and Anthems with Strings he embarked on writing a set of variations. On several occasions Bliss’s attractive Meditations reminded me of the dramatic and opulent sound-world of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12).

In the marvellous Introduction to the Meditations marked Largamente - Agitato, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, I will fear no evil’ the CBSO bring out the warm, melodic and emotionally moving qualities of the music. I note how well Bliss contrasts soothing moods of reassurance with others heavy with threat and disturbance. The Meditation I: Allegro moderato, ma tranquillo, He leadeth me beside the still waters’ is music with unsettling undercurrents that is never allowed to relax. The robust and muscular Meditation II: Allegro deciso, Thy rod and staff they comfort me’ makes its weighty presence felt. In Meditation III: Scherzando, The Lambs’ Bliss does a convincing representation of frisky lambs playing on the spring meadow. The CBSO brass adds a somewhat martial character to the forceful and brash Meditation IV: Allegro, He restoreth my soul’. In the Meditation V: Larghetto, In green pastures’ the CBSO create an inviting and comforting atmosphere that convincingly evokes verdant pastures. The spitting brass and shrieking woodwind of the CBSO is a major feature of the Interlude: Molto agitato, Through the valley of the shadow of death’ promoting a disconcerting atmosphere of impending danger. The Finale: Moderato e deciso, In the House of the Lord’ has an impressively heroic central section that could easily serve as the conclusion to a great symphony.

Bliss wrote a number of works for chorus a cappella sometimes including a single instrument such as a piano, organ or harp. His score A Prayer to the Infant Jesus was composed in 1968 for unaccompanied women’s voices. The work is a setting of the seventieth century prayer of thanksgiving that Father Cyril made to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The prayer was in thanks for favours which had enabled the restoration of the miraculous statue of the infant Jesus of Prague. The clothed statue is made of wood with a wax coating and is installed up to the waist in a silver sleeve and base. Whilst visiting the statue at the shrine of the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague in 1966 Bliss copied down the text of the thanksgiving prayer. With the A Prayer to the Infant Jesus Bliss has composed an engaging supplication that conveys a respectful expression of thanksgiving. The Ambrosian Singers directed by Philip Ledger provide rapturous singing that is highly persuasive.

The quality of the performances and excellent sound make this Lyrita disc a most attractive proposition.

Michael Cookson


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