BLISS: Madame Noy. Rout. The Enchantress. The Beatitudes.
Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano); Wigmore Ensemble; Pamela Bowden (contralto); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Schwarz; Heather Harper (soprano); Gerald English (tenor); Goldsmiths Choral Union, Royal Choral Society, Wembley Philharmonic Society, BBC Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Arthur Bliss.
LYRITA REAM.1115 MONO TT: 75:53.

Enfant terrible, English style. In his early career, the English regarded Arthur Bliss as avant-garde. He experimented with odd instrumental combinations and off-beat vocal techniques and with innovative orchestral forms. But avant-garde is relative. The English have very few exemplars that would pass muster among the shockers in, say, Paris, Berlin, or Vienna. Even their wildest have a deeply traditional streak. In Bliss’s case, radicalism almost always came down to a matter of externals. His musical idiom shared more with late Romantics like Elgar and Tchaikovsky than with Stravinsky or Bartók, and there’s nothing in his output at the level of Elgar’s Violin Concerto or Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The closest he comes to pure Modernism is in, I think, his best work, Morning Heroes, a large-scale choral score that exorcises the trauma of his service in World War I and the death of his brother in that war. Peaking in the Twenties and Thirties, his music was eclipsed, like most British composers, by that of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Benjamin Britten, and Michael Tippett. Nevertheless, he had a genuine voice, and a surprising amount of his work has held on to an audience, mainly through recording. The small, non-megacorp Lyrita label, dedicated mainly to neglected British composers, issued a number of performances of his work.

The program gives us vocal work from all over Bliss’s career. Madame Noy and Rout come early, The Enchantress and The Beatitudes later on, post-World War II. You can call none of these pieces ill-made. While you listen to them, they have highly effective moments. However, you will probably forget most of them two hours later.

The Beatitudes, from 1961, came out in the same festival as Britten’s War Requiem, one of the last universally recognized classics, which buried it. It consists of poems by Vaughan, Herbert, Dylan Thomas, and a sermon by Jeremy Taylor, interspersed with verses from the Beatitudes. The Herbert poems Bliss set also appear in Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece Five Mystical Songs, and Bliss’s settings suffer in the comparison. The weakest part of Bliss’s art lies in his melodic gift. His tunes seem aimless and far too elaborate and indirect for their own good. Technically, I would say that it comes down to an avoidance of repetition (either near or exact) of key musical phrases. When he does hit on an idea that bears repeating, he generally states it once and then throws it away.

The same problems beset The Enchantress (1951), but it matters less. Bliss describes it as a “scena,” a Baroque form that puts a vocalist into a highly dramatic situation with contrasting moods. Here, in a translation of the second idyll of Theocritus, a woman casts a spell on the lover who abandoned her so that he returns. As I listened, it seemed coherent and effective. Other than its seamless shifts from one extreme mood to another, I remember nothing of the actual music.
For me, the earliest works -- Madame Noy (1918) and Rout (1920) -- capture the most interest. Both are for chamber ensemble and soprano soloist. Madame Noy is a slightly macabre tale in the tradition of Alfred Noyes. Here, the ideas are memorable, as is the instrumental sound, very much influenced by Ravel. Rout (it also exists in a full orchestral version) uses nonsense syllables as its text, but they actually sound like a language -- you’re not quite sure whether it’s nonsense or a foreign language you think may know trying to come through -- rather than like scat. The music evokes carnival and celebration. Again, the instrumentation derives from Ravel, and the idiom moves between Spanish and Italian. The score exhibits great elegance, much more than either The Enchantress or The Beatitudes. Unlike those two sprawls, Bliss works with a small set of ideas skillfully varied. It counts as one of Bliss’s hits, although in its orchestral version, which Bliss himself conducted for Lyrita. I prefer the sparklingly clear original.

The performances all come from live BBC broadcasts, from Lyrita founder Richard Itter who recorded them on professional equipment for his own use. The sound is good enough and the performances lively in everything but The Beatitudes. I don’t blame the musicians, who included Heather Harper and Gerald English, stalwarts of British music. It’s a fairly dreary score.

S.G.S. (June 2018)