Thursday, 14 July 2011

Arthur Bliss: Oboe Quintet

I have always loved Bliss’s Oboe Quintet– it seems to me to evoke an age long passed- perhaps from a time before the horrors of the trenches with which the he was so well acquainted?

The work came as a result of the composer’s relationship with Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. She was an American lady with great enthusiasm for modern music who was prepared to put her money where here heart was. Bliss was impressed with her patronage and intellectual grasp of music and had dedicated his Two Interludes (1925) for piano solo to her. And the respect was mutual: Mrs Coolidge commissioned the present work for the 1927 Venice Festival. Like all the pieces on this CD it was inspired by the playing of Leon Goossens who gave the first performance in that city with the Venetian Quartet. It is reputed to have gained an enthusiastic response from Alban Berg.

We can hardly imagine Berg using Connolly’s Jig as a part of any composition – but of course some readers may be aware of an instance of the Austrian master resorting to Irish folk tunes in his works! But Bliss is quite happy to exploit this material for the finale of his Quintet. It is not as simple as making the band sound like a Celtic ceilidh. Bliss uses the theme as a mine to extract phrases and motifs to be tossed between strings and woodwind. Echoes from the first movement are heard before the work comes to a conclusion.

The first movement is written in loose sonata form. The easy-going opening theme is soon challenged by more intense and urgent material; however the movement ends with a quiet coda. But perhaps the heart of the work is the fundamentally gorgeous and inspiring Andante con Moto. This is everything we could possibly imagine English music to be. Perfect equilibrium between the soloist and strings, long breathed tunes and delicious harmonies. The faster middle section looks both backwards to the opening movement and to the ‘Irishry’ of the finale. This is near perfect: I can never tire of this music.

Perhaps the fundamental beauty of this work is the balance that Bliss manages to achieve between competing styles and influences. There is no doubt that the impressionists in general and Ravel in particular are called to mind. But there are certainly many nods to the prevailing ‘Georgian’ pastoral imagery. Occasionally jazz is implied and perhaps something a little more astringent imported from Germanic countries? Yet the balance of styles is perfect– this is an extremely satisfying and ultimately beautiful work.

This work can be heard on OBOE CLASSICS CC2009
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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