Bliss
Valses Fantastiques
Toccata
Intermezzo
Study
Piano Sonata
May-Zeeh
Suite for Piano
Miniature Scherzo
Mark Bebbington (piano)

Recorded 27 August 2010 & 3 January 2011 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
CD No: SOMM
SOMMCD 0111
Duration: 74 minutes
Reviewed: September 2012
This first volume of Arthur Bliss’s piano music is typically enterprising of Somm and Mark Bebbington, the latest in a long line of distinguished issues devoted to British fare, or at least composers born in Britain, for Bliss was something of a cosmopolitan. Certainly this release opens-out our appreciation of this composer; Bliss’s piano music is not widely-known. Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss (1891-1975, he was knighted in 1950) wrote some splendid orchestral works, such as A Colour Symphony, Music for Strings, the score for Alexander Korda’s 1936 film of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come, ceremonial piece like Welcome the Queen, and the late Metamorphic Variations. Bliss’s concertos for piano and for violin seem to have fallen from view but are worthy of rediscovery.
Bebbington’s first volume of Bliss’s piano music begins in amiable tongue-in-cheek fashion – pastiche à la française – the Valses Fantastiques (1913, four in number) in which it might be said that Chabrier meets Poulenc. These insouciant and individual pieces make a delightful opening to this recorded recital. The Toccata Intermezzo and Study, separate pieces, cover from 1912 to 1927, the first and last reporting a European influence on Bliss, particularly Bartók and Prokofiev. The Intermezzo (1912) is heartfelt and sweet, written by a sensitive young man.
With the big Piano Sonata (1952) we move into deep and turbulent waters. Its three equal-length movements, totalling nearly thirty minutes, have much to say. The writing is complex, well-argued and sinuous. Quite why this substantial and impressive piece, full-blooded and eschewing anything showy, should be so neglected is rather baffling. The Sonata’s heart is the central movement (wrongly captioned here as "Allegro sereno"). The sereno is correct, the music itself is a slow, troubled outpouring in which serenity is searched for. The finale glitters with purpose and layered lyricism en route to a bravura if hard-won conclusion. Time is needed to ingest this ambitious work; fortunately Mark Bebbington has its measure and his recording is gratefully received.
There remains the charms of May-Zeeh (1910) and the four-movement Suite (1925), the latter embracing a pugnacious and contrapuntally adept ‘Overture’ (with just a hint of Hindemith), a swaggering ‘Polonaise’, and a finale in the form of ‘Variations’ based on a syncopated opening that flowers many riches and also many notes for the pianist to negotiate! The third movement is an eloquent ‘Elegy’, a lament for those who fell in World War One, which included Bliss’s younger brother, Kennard.
To close this disc (which includes first recordings), and to lead us into the keenly anticipated second volume, is Bliss’s soufflé-like, one-minute Miniature Scherzo (1969). As Robert Matthew-Walker says in his admirable booklet note, “Mendelssohn’s fragment is very well hidden” (from the E minor Violin Concerto). With excellent recorded sound, this Bliss survey is thoroughly recommended.

 

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