On 2 August 1966 Sir Arthur Bliss celebrated his 75th birthday. Several concerts featured as part of these celebrations. The main event was held during the Promenade season at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 2 August at 7.30 pm. Arthur Bliss conducted the first half of the concert with Sir Malcolm Sargent taking over after the interval. The concert consisted of four works, one of which was by Arthur Bliss. Anton Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor, RV 580 for four violins and string orchestra opened the proceedings. The soloists were Haroutune Bedelian, Galina Solodchin, John Brown and Ruth Waterman. Three were winners of the BBC’s 1966 Violin Competition and the 1965 winner, Ruth Waterman. This was followed by a performance of Bliss’s Piano Concerto with John Ogden as soloist. After the interval, there were three works by Ludwig van Beethoven: Elegiac Song, ‘Sanft wie du lebtest’ op.118, Overture: Leonora No.3, op.72b and the Symphony No.6 in F major ‘Pastoral.’ The Thames Chamber Choir performed in the Elegiac Song.
Arthur Bliss’s Piano Concerto in B flat was commissioned by the British Council for performance during the British Week at the New York World Fair on 10 June 1939. The work was dedicated to ‘The People of the United States of America’. It was first performed at the Carnegie Hall with Solomon as soloist. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
The Piano Concerto is in three movements: Allegro con brio, Adagietto and Andante maestoso, molto vivo. It was Bliss’ next major competition after the popular ballet score Checkmate which had been produced in Paris in 1937. It is a romantic concerto, where the soloist is the ‘chief protagonist’ and dominates the progress of the entire work. The concerto is virtuosic and makes huge technical demands on the soloist.
The Daily Mail reported on the birthday concert: ‘Sir Arthur scores another triumph’. Michael Reynolds observed that the composer ‘trim and erect and 75 to the day, received a tremendous ovation from the Prommers when he came on to conduct two concertos last night – his own and Vivaldi’s for four violins.’ Vivaldi’s concerto is still probably better known in J.S. Bach’s transcription for four harpsichords.
Reynolds wrote that ‘Bliss’s Piano Concerto (1939) must surely be the last of the romantic bravura concertos, and as such it weathers well. Bliss has written expertly for piano and orchestra, even if the work does lack cohesion.’ He concludes the review by remarking that John Ogden ‘slightly tentative in the opening flourishes, but was very soon a convincing advocate of some very listenable, highly pianistic music.’
Part II of this post will look at the review in the Manchester Guardian by Neville Cardus.