A Colour Symphony
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Lydia Mordkovich (violin)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 17-18 January 2006 in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10380
Duration: 74 minutes
Arthur Bliss’s A Colour Symphony, written in 1922, is not, as you might think from the title, a Scriabin- or Messiaen-esque exercise in synaesthesia (the condition in which those affected experience sounds as colours and vice-versa). Instead it was prompted, so the composer tells us, by the symbolic significance of certain colours in heraldry. So, purple (“the colour of amethysts, pageantry, royalty and death”) prompts a dignified, restrained march; red (“rubies, wine, revelry, furnaces, courage and magic”) is a dazzling scherzo; blue (“sapphires, deep water, skies, loyalty and melancholy”) an introspective slow movement; and green (“emeralds, hope, youth, joy, spring and victory”) an exhilarating finale. I also wonder whether the then recent success of Holst’s The Planets set Bliss’s mind searching, if only unconsciously, for some comparable point of departure.
A lot depends, then, on conveying the appropriate atmosphere, and Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales score highly here. They bring out a touching vulnerability beneath the majesty of ‘Purple’, while ‘Red’ has a tremendous sense of rhythmic exhilaration. ‘Blue’ is kept on the move – perhaps a bit too much, downplaying the melancholy of Bliss’s subtitle for this movement. But the strings’ principal melody is beautifully floated (if you’ll pardon the pun) and Hickox brings out some interesting sublimated echoes of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. ‘Green’ has a growing sense of exuberance, with some deftly characterful playing in the woodwinds’ solo section at the centre of the movement.
Chandos’s rich recording handles Bliss’s often heavily brass- and timpani-dominated tuttis successfully, while the more lightly scored passages sound wonderfully limpid.
The Violin Concerto is a much later work, from 1955; this is its first recording since that by Alfredo Campoli – for whom the work was written – made in that year with the composer conducting, although there is a second version, from 1968, again with Bliss conducting, in circulation that derives from a concert performance. In three large-scale movements, together lasting over forty minutes, it stands, stylistically, somewhere between the Elgar and Walton concertos in its mixture of romantic expansiveness and taut, nervy rhythms, with echoes of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, particularly in the quick music following the finale’s long slow introduction. While full of attractive music, it is, perhaps, too expansive, and gives a somewhat amorphous impression as a whole. The most successful movement is the central one (apparently influenced by the ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’ from Berlioz’s symphony “Romeo and Juliet”); the outer ones are a bit too discursive for their own good.
Lydia Mordkovich gives a robustly heart-on-sleeve account of the solo part. The fearsome technical challenges Bliss puts in her way are surmounted with apparent ease, though not always with complete accuracy, and the orchestral playing is full of warmth and vitality.
A welcome addition to the Bliss discography, then, especially if it’s the start of a Bliss orchestral series: a new recording of his Meditations on a Theme of John Blow would be particularly good news.