Sadly, you’ll be lucky to encounter either
of these works in the concert hall - or, indeed, many of Bliss’s
scores - so recordings are to be prized both by those who admire his
music, as I do, and by those curious to investigate it. Perhaps the
neglect of the Metamorphic Variations
is less hard to understand.
Writing of the work’s première recording by Barry Wordsworth
and what was then the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Rob Barnett opined
that these “intricate and intriguing Variations
but represent a slow-burn even among Bliss fanatics.” (review
There’s a lot in that verdict. The Meditations on a Theme by
variations in all but name, albeit each one is
extensive and highly developed - are a very different matter. I’ve
always highly esteemed this colourful and imaginative work and its neglect
in the concert hall is disappointing though it has fared better in the
studio with recordings by Hugo Rignold (review
Barry Wordsworth (review
and Vernon Handley.
I acquired the Wordsworth recording of the Metamorphic Variations
quite a few years ago. Made for Nimbus in 1991, it was issued to mark
the composer’s centenary. I have to confess that I haven’t
listened to it much over the years, which may say something about the
work - or, perhaps, about me! Consequently, I know the piece far less
well than the Blow Meditations.
Listening to it again now in
this fine David Lloyd-Jones performance, I think that perhaps the trouble
may lie in the thematic material. The key Element - Bliss entitled the
first of the fourteen sections ‘Elements’ - is an extended
oboe melody. As Giles Easterbrook comments in his very helpful notes,
this involves more than a nod to Tristan.
also quite angular. Clearly, it furnished Bliss with lots of possibilities
but I find it doesn’t lodge firmly in the memory and in fact it
was only on reaching the trumpet material at the start of section V,
‘Interjections’, that I clearly discerned a reference to
the oboe theme. It’s ironic that I should find it hard to pick
up references to a theme so clearly stated at the outset; by contrast,
in the Meditations
we don’t hear the theme until quite
near the end of the piece yet by the time it arrives we feel we already
know it well - I readily acknowledge that may be because I know the
Blow piece much better.
It’s perhaps worth recalling at this point the genesis of Metamorphic
. Bliss was inspired by the paintings of his longstanding
friend, George Dannatt (1915-2009) and specifically by his triptych,
, part of which is reproduced on the cover to this CD.
This abstract work - not finished at the time Bliss saw it - inspired
the creation of the composer’s most substantial piece of abstract
music. Incidentally, Dannatt was sufficiently well-versed in music that
he supplied detailed notes on this piece, and on A Colour Symphony
for the aforementioned recording by Barry Wordsworth.
Though I may find the thematic material of Metamorphic Variations
somewhat elusive there can be no denying the resource and invention
with which Bliss works out his variations, nor the imaginative, colourful
way in which he uses a large orchestra. It’s also a work of contrasts.
So, for example, we find delicately scored sections such as ‘Contemplation’
(section VII), which is beautifully imagined and scored by Bliss, and
the equally delicate ‘Cool Interlude’ (section X). The latter
provides much-needed contrast coming as it does immediately after the
powerful and dark ‘Funeral Procession’. Lloyd-Jones imparts
power and weight to that section which, as Giles Easterbrook says, is
“the emotional, dramatic and structural summit of the work”.
Throughout the work 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, however, 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’; those
two players deserved to be credited but aren’t. I found myself
drawn into the work as the performance unfolded and came to the conclusion
that I’ve probably underrated it.
The performance ofMeditations on a Theme by John Blow
convincing too. In the January edition of the BBC Music Magazine
Terry Barfoot contributes a very good feature on Bliss and I was delighted
to see that he leads off by talking about this work which he says “is
one of the great works of British orchestral music, and lays claim to
be Bliss’s masterpiece.” I don’t think he’s
overstating the case for this splendid and inventive score. Incidentally,
one thing I learned from Terry’s feature is that Radio 3’s
invaluable and long-running series, Composer of the Week
originated during Bliss’s time as the BBC’s Head of Music
in the early 1940s.
David Lloyd-Jones does the Meditations
very well indeed. I liked,
for example, the drive and vitality he brings to Meditation II, ‘Thy
rod and thy staff they comfort me’, though I think Vernon Handley,
in his 1979 CBSO recording (EMI), was marginally more thrusting hereabouts.
Lloyd-Jones ensures that the ‘Lambs’ skip along innocently
and lightly in the following Meditation and he brings a fine pastoral
feel as well as an element of nobility to Meditation V, ‘In Green
Pastures’. Once again Handley perhaps has a slight edge in the
following section, ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’,
injecting a bit more malevolence, though Lloyd-Jones’s reading
is impressive also. The finale comes off really well in this Bournemouth
account and the noble apotheosis of the theme (track 8, 2:06) is well
worth the wait.
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.
See also review by John