REVIEWS:  diversions ddv 24106 Bliss: Piano Concerto


This piece, I'm sure, will come as something of a discovery for many people. Representation in the catalogues has been sparse, to say the least. Solomon, no less, gave the première in 1939. His recording (originally on HMV C3348/52) most recently surfaced on EMI Great Recordings of the Century (CDH7 63821-2). Philip Fowke has also taken it into the studios (with RLPO/Atherton, originally on Unicorn DKP9006). Barnard's performance (originally issued in 1962 on HMV ASD499) has been lovingly transferred and remastered by Leslie Craythorn. Trevor Barnard is a British pianist who moved first to the USA and then to Australia. His playing is tremendously committed and he copes well with the many virtuoso demands Bliss forces on him. There is a great Romantic sweep to the first movement: the orchestra (inspired under Sargent) obviously enjoys letting its hair down. Although the opening of the Adagietto could easily be film music, Barnard's tender phrasing successfully avoids any suggestion of parody. The slow movement has distinctly Lisztian overtones, especially when a solo cello is accompanied by piano filigree. Throughout, the orchestral detail revealed by Craythorn's transfer is little short of miraculous. Barnard's variety of touch comes to the fore in the last movement also, the effect almost spectral at times. Despite the low playing time, this CD comes wholeheartedly recommended.
Colin Clarke

Bliss's Piano Concerto was first performed during the 1939 World Fair in New York by Solomon and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. (Vaughan Williams' Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus and Bax's Seventh Symphony were first performed during the same concert.). Bliss's Piano Concerto is in the big romantic mould, as is his somewhat later Violin Concerto. The music is shot through with highly typical "Blissian" gestures, and the outer movements abound with big swaggering themes whereas the central movement is somewhat calmer. The music has a remarkable energy and dashes about with vitality. But, try as he may, Bliss never succeeded in convincing the present listener with either his Piano Concerto or his later Violin Concerto, both of which I found generally too long and too diffuse to be wholly satisfying. (His much later Cello Concerto is by far the finest of his works in the genre.) However there is much to enjoy in this grand-scale piece and Trevor Barnard is a splendidly equipped pianist who met all of Bliss's demands, both technical and musical. He seizes the work with a remarkable assurance and succeeds in making it much finer than I think it really is. No small merit here.

Barnard is well supported by the Philharmonia and by Sargent who may be responsible for some slight problems of balance. Nevertheless this is a really fine performance of an ambitious work that may sometimes outstay its welcome. This recording was issued in 1962 by HMV and reissued in 1977 as part of a boxed set of British piano concertos. The present transfer is generally well managed and the sound quite acceptable. Incidentally this is the only available recording of the concerto, so you need not hesitate if you really want to have it, the more so as this performance is a nice tribute to Barnard's impeccable playing and musicianship.
Hubert Culot

Though hardly cutting edge for its time, Bliss’s Concerto is a work of much ingenuity, and Trevor Barnard is a splendid soloist. Now that it no longer matters (if it ever did) whether Arthur Bliss’s Piano Concerto was an absurd anachronism in 1938, surely we can just sit back and enjoy it for what it is: a virtuoso showpiece with all the trimmings – sweeping romantic melodies, cascades of double octaves, the lot? And yet it is rather more than that. The first movement has three fine themes: a grandly proud one, a smooth lyrical second (as it happens, both quite typical of Bliss) and a memorably beautiful third which you only gradually come to realise is related to both its predecessors. With that sort of ingenuity there’s no risk at all that the first movement, which is rich in texture, incident and interest, will seem a moment too long at 17 minutes. The slow movement is engaging in the way that both its melodies develop in unexpected ways: the first, touching but seemingly brief, is expanded quite differently by the orchestra and the soloist, and the second, which you take for charming light relief, soon becomes grandly pianistic. The finale is no less clever – you may well want to play it again from the beginning, to find out how the brusque, brief figure at the outset becomes so nobly declamatory by the end. The repeat will be no hardship: that finale is a resourcefully handled quasi-rondo, again rich in incident and contrast. Unfortunately, this fine performance, so well-received when it first appeared, is let down by its dated sound.

The solo part is splendidly played (though Sargent could have taken more care over orchestral balance, which is sometimes gawky) but the mono recording is rather dense, a bit veiled at times, with insufficient dynamic contrast. Short measure too, but the only modern recording, by Philip Fowke adds only a five-minute march, and is only available on cassette. Despite my reservation I enjoyed this reissue enormously.
Michael Oliver

When this recording of the Bliss Piano Concerto was first released by EMI in 1962, it caused quite a ripple in the music world, the performance by the British pianist Trevor Barnard receiving the highest critical acclaim. He was just 24 at the time, having studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and a glittering career as a soloist was obviously awaiting him. He moved to the States in 1967 to take the post of faculty member of the New England Conservatory in Boston. From there he made his home in Melbourne, where he now lectures at the University’s Faculty of Music. With recording companies seldom venturing into Australia, Barnard largely disappeared from the international scene, a great loss to us as this disc so tellingly confirms. Now the British independent record company Divine Art has licensed the original master tape from EMI, its engineers achieving wonders in updating the sound, which can now stand comparison with many recent releases.

Bliss was already 46 when he composed his only piano concerto, though the work has that fresh quality of youthful inspiration, the opening movement exuding a typically British swagger. It was intended for the World Fair held in New York in 1939, and premiered by Solomon and the New York Philharmonic in the Carnegie Hall. The British never really took to the work, and it has, at best, retained a place on the fringe of the repertoire. That has to be a cause for regret, as the score, in a post-Romantic idiom, provides the soloist with a red-blooded virtuoso role. If any performance could revitalize interest, this is surely the one. The concerto perfectly reflects Sargent’s flamboyant style of conducting, Barnard responding with playing of scintillating brilliance. The first-movement cadenza in particular is a dazzling showpiece. The details of the score are meticulously observed. As an example of the care taken, listen to the scrupulous grading of the long crescendo that starts at 9:10 in the first movement. The central movement is most beautifully handled and much is made of the quiet passage in the finale, bringing an enhanced sense of brilliance to the fast sections.

The early 1960s were within the golden era of the Philharmonia; the multitude of colours they brought to the score was remarkable, with every member of the woodwinds a distinguished musician. The booklet comments on problems encountered during the digital remastering, though the end product provides exemplary orchestral detail, the rather muffled timpani the only adverse comment. With less than 38 minutes the disc does offer a rather miserly time, even for a midprice issue. For this listener they have been some of the most precious minutes I have spent in recent months.
David Denton

Bliss's Piano Concerto was commissioned by the British Council for the New York World Fair in 1939. It is a powerful work in the nineteenth-century Romantic tradition, and at the time it was hoped it could prove to be a British "Emperor" concerto. It certainly displays a sense of design on a large scale, and Bliss manipulates his concertante forces and develops his themes with boldness and assurance. The snag is that those themes, although often lyrically attractive, are not strong or memorable enough in themselves. Even so, Trevor Barnard's excellent performance with Sargent and the Philharmonia is commanding, and there is much to enjoy. Barnard is obviously in complete sympathy with the music, and he gives a strong, passionate reading and displays considerable virtuosity. The original recording of the piano is excellent, but rather forward, while the orchestra is recessed and not ideally transparent, as is obvious in the opening tutti. Once the work gets underway the balance is effective enough but the AAD CD transfer does not seem to improve the orchestral focus as much as it might. Nevertheless, a thoroughly worthwhile CD reissue.

In 1938, Arthur Bliss received a commission from the British Council which promised him exposure on a global stage. And on June 10 th, 1939, with the Second World War looming in Europe, Bliss’s Piano Concerto was premiered at Carnegie Hall in the context of the World Fair being held at that time in New York. Solomon was the soloist, while Sir Adrian Boult conducted the New York Philharmonic. Bliss was then at the height of his powers – he had recently completed Checkmate , a ballet brimful of exuberant vitality. If anything, the Piano Concerto goes a step further; it is a Romantic concerto in the grand manner, almost 40 minutes long, cast in moderately conventional form: a giant Allegro con brio opening movement, a reflective Adagietto and a quick finale that is preceded by a reflective slow introduction. It is a purely abstract piece – and that, and the shadow of war that conspired to leave it in obscurity for the first years after its transatlantic birth, and the almost overblown nature of its heroics, mean that it has never really become a repertory piece.

This release from Australia ( sic) resurrects the second recording of the piece, originally made in 1962 (following the celebrated one by Solomon and the Liverpool PO under Boult). Trevor Barnard is an Australian resident and is still very active there, as teacher, writer and adjudicator. He was born in Britain and recorded the Bliss Concerto at the tender age of 24. (His recording of Bliss’s Piano Sonata has also appeared on the Divine Art label). It is clear throughout that he has the full measure of the piece. Barnard is well up to the taxing demands in the outer movements – the mighty cadenza at the end of the first movement is a tour de force. You get the strong impression that by sheer force of personality, the accompanying Philharmonia under Sargent were galvanised into urgent response, so that (despite my hint of reservation about the piece as mentioned above) Bliss is here receiving the best possible advocacy. The drawback is the sound, and the fact that it is the only work on the disc. Despite the admirable efforts of the Australian engineers in the remastering of the original tapes and removing extraneous sounds, there is no way it can be called state-of-the-art, with the piano in unpleasant close-up, the orchestra unblended and in an uningratiating acoustic.

While it is good to have this pioneering performance restored to the catalogues, I am not convinced it does the piece any great favours, and is probably best left to specialists only – particularly as it is in head to head competition with a much more recent offering that is no whit its inferior in virtuosity and panache.
Piers Burton-Page