The first volume of Mark Bebbington’s survey of Sir Arthur Bliss’s complete music for piano made the second one very desirable, and so it proves. Opening with the four-movement Masks (1924), Bebbington shows that this little-known aspect of Bliss’s creative catalogue is underrated, for these vignettes teem with imagination and incident – the guises being ‘Comedy’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Sinister’ and ‘Military’, in that order, although it would be easy to think that numbers 2 and 3 have been reversed, save the Third eventually does have its ominous aspects.
From a year later, the Two Interludes rather belie their innocent titles, being weighty and sinewy, vying between experimentation, nightclub insouciance, and Impressionism. Following the order of the disc, we now go back to 1912 (or thereabouts) for the first recording of Suite for Piano, a three-movement affair written when Bliss was around the 20-year-old mark. If maybe not distinctive enough (and with debts to other composers, Brahms at times, and also suggestive of John Ireland, twelve years Bliss’s senior), the music, over 17 minutes, is certainly attractive and confident. The final ‘Scherzo’ is enjoyably impish and contrasted with a chorale-like trio.
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The old year has ended, 1932), owes to J. S. Bach (BWV614), an eloquent and restrained re-working, and all the more touching for it. Other ‘shorts’ include The Rout Trot (for all-the world entertaining Scott Joplin), and the earlier piece that shares its name with the composer, from 1923, boogies along infectiously, also edgily and with clangour, with maybe the echo of American popular song.
That leaves a much-later composition, Triptych (1970) – Bliss died in 1975 – music that is sparer and uncompromising, and from deep within the composer, whether the introspective, rather dark ‘Meditation’ that unfolds on an expansive scale and is remarkably compelling, or the ‘Dramatic Recitative’ that glowers its way into the consciousness with big gestures, and the final ‘Capriccio’ whose rhythmic complexity is a delight to the listener as it must be a nightmare for the pianist. It ends rhetorically.
These three diverse movements, tempered by the experience of a then long life, are played with consummate virtuosity and significant musical insight by Mark Bebbington. He is given a first-class recording, immediate, truthful and unflinching, and the presentation includes informed annotation. Not sure why this release should wait four-plus years to reach us, but it is now here and fully worthy of wide attention.