The Naxos British piano concerto series moves on to examine the work of Arthur Bliss, whose contribution to the genre is a big-boned, virtuosic piece lasting almost forty minutes. It has already enjoyed a spectacular recording career since its composition and premiere in 1939, with much fabled recordings from pianists Solomon and Noel Mewton-Wood.
To my knowledge this is the first time that this has been available at budget price, and it’s a fine value package since Peter Donohoe proves to be well up to the challenge on offer.
The concerto was commissioned by the British Council for the New York World’s Fair, dedicated to Solomon and described by Bliss as “what is loosely called romantic”. With a statement of intent from the piano in octaves at the outset, Bliss announces a style following in the tradition of big sounding piano concertos from Liszt and Tchaikovsky, but the melodic material is pained by an unmistakably English brush.
Despite the expansive sounds of piano and orchestra, the composer also finds room for reflection, particularly in the outskirts of the second movement Adagietto, which becomes more intense in the middle but is ultimately more relaxed and restrained. The finale, so often a problem with works of this stature, works well enough and brings the piece to a suitably rounded conclusion, avoiding many of the empty gestures that are easy to make in a virtuosic work of this kind.
Peter Donohoe has proved himself to be at home in this music, as a past disc for Naxos featuring the concertos of Alan Rawsthorne proves, and here he shows considerable stamina but balances this with a pleasing lyricism, sustaining a high level of performance throughout.
What really clinches this as a worthwhile disc for English music lovers is the Piano Sonata, one of Bliss’s best known works. Written for the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, it contains some extremely moving music, not least towards the close of the Adagio sereno, where time seems to stand still in this performance.
Although not as obviously big on gestures as the concerto, the sonato proves to be just as effective emotionally and stylistically. That’s not to say it’s easy to play though, and Donohoe rises to the challenge once again, caught in a much closer recording that is sometimes difficult to step back from.
More baffling is the final work, the Concerto for Two Pianos, added as a footnote. Despite containing some interesting music and original textures it never seems to quite take off, and it’s interesting to note this work was originally written for the surreal combination of piano and tenor.
Its inclusion makes for a well filled disc, however, and one that is well worth investigating as a record of Bliss’s major piano works. I imagine the next step would logically be to record the Vaughan Williams concertos for piano(s) and orchestra, and if the same team are involved that will be an easy buying decision to make.