Bliss String Qu 1 Maggini Naxos 8.557108

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2002 and the recording is still available.

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
String Quartet No 1 in B-flat major
Conversations for flute, oboe, violin, viola & cello
String Quartet in A major
Maggini Quartet
Nicholas Daniel (oboe and cor anglais)
Michael Cox (flute and alto flute)
rec. 2000, Potton Hall, UK
Naxos 8.557108 [64]

Bliss is among the least known of the British composers of the 20th century. Yet he is always worth exploring. He composed music in all the important genres, but was perhaps at his best when handling instrumental ensembles, either the orchestra or chamber groups. It is therefore promising that the spine of this Naxos issue contains the description ‘Volume 1’.

Of the three works featured here, the earliest is the Quartet in A major, which was composed during 1915 when Bliss was serving on the Western Front. Whether the music was actually composed ‘in the trenches’ or on leave we do not know. What is for certain is that, along with all the other works of the first phase of his creative life, the composer withdrew it.

However, the music is well written and excellently played and recorded. The Maggini Quartet, in their continuing series of English chamber music recordings for Naxos, are setting high standards and performing the worthwhile service of bringing repertoire to wider attention that deserves such coverage (one thinks also of the Bax quartets).

The A major Quartet particularly reflects an Elgarian influence, as one might expect. In fact Bliss was absent from the London premiere in November 1915, and Lady Elgar wrote to him to explain how she found the music ‘full of eager life and exhilarating energy and hope’. Already Bliss displays a sure control of instrumental writing and of subtle textures, and the work is well worth performing.

The Conversations for winds and strings were written soon after the end of the Great War, and this time the influence is probably Parisian. In the French capital, Bliss had met members of Les Six, and was much encouraged by their vivacity and modernism. When his own music, these Conversations, was introduced in London, the programme also included pieces by Tailleferre, Milhaud and Poulenc, a fact which pleased Bliss considerably. There are five titled movements lasting some fifteen minutes, and the wind players change occasionally from flute to alto flute, and from oboe to cor anglais. The balances with the strings are expertly and wittily handled, while the concept relies greatly on the dexterity of the players. The fact that this performance features the artistry of Michael Cox and Nicholas Daniel is therefore a bonus, enhancing the quality of what is already a bargain.

The most substantial, and the best of the three works is the Quartet No 1. This dates from altogether later in the composer’s career, when like Benjamin Britten, he settled in the United States before war broke out in 1939. It was commissioned by the great American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and first performed in 1941, shortly before Bliss returned to Europe. The London premiere followed soon after, performed by the Griller Quartet at a National Gallery concert. There are four movements, the slow movement positioned third, and they make up an admirably balanced whole. This is altogether a more substantial and finished composition, the contrasts and tensions justifying the timescale in every way. The Maggini performance is eloquent and has abundant subtleties, the latter a tribute to the recording too.

With excellent documentation too, this is an interesting and worthwhile issue in every way.

Terry Barfoot

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