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Posted October 1, 2010
As fond as I am of 20th Century English composers I've never been able to warm up to the music of Arthur Bliss. I can't say that there's anything in his music that puts me off, but there is also nothing in it that moves me as much as Vaughan Williams, Bax, Holst or Britten. But I relish the English music series on Naxos and figured this volume with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones would present a good case for the composer. It does indeed.
It's a tidy bit of history that Bliss would be appointed Master of the Queen's Music in 1953, the same year he would encounter John Blow's setting of Psalm 23, "The Lord is My Shepherd." Bliss (who had a commission for an orchestral work sitting on his desk) was inspired by one of the tunes in Blow's setting and composed a set of meditations on the tune.
There are five Meditations, preceded by an Introduction and followed by an Interlude and Finale, each movement illustrates one of the psalm's verses. The Introduction ("The Lord is my Shepherd - I will fear no evil") balances brooding dark with softer-hued English pastoral.
The third Meditation "Lambs" is scherzo-like, while the fifth "Green Pastures," is a gorgeous reverie for harp, winds and strings. The violence of the seventh Meditation "Through the valley of the shadow of death" is peppered with edgy percussion. The Finale "In the house of the Lord" is thrilling with Blow's tune singing out gloriously.
The Metamorphic Variations were written in 1972 in tribute to the artist George Dannatt. Masterfully orchestrated and filled with shifting moods and tones, this is quite an orchestral showpiece. Yet for all the composer's creativity and superb craftsmanship, the work does have a certain rambling quality and emotional detachment that makes it less than a revelation for me.
The Bournemouth Symphony plays brilliantly. The delicate wind and string writing in the Meditations comes off beautifully, the brass playing is stellar throughout and the percussionists really bang away in the Variations. The excellent liner notes by Giles Easterbrook are fascinating and the sound quality top-notch.