There are other very good interpretations of these suites - particularly Checkmate - but Bliss brings out the power and cohesion, so the music is more persuasive and engaging without losing its edge, and the sound quality is very good, particularly given its age. It's a pity we don't get the whole music for both ballets rather than the concert selections (though at least it leaves space for 'Things to Come') and the absence of the Prelude to Checkmate is a real loss. But David Lloyd Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have recorded the whole of Checkmate for Naxos, and there's even the Sadlers' Wells Theatre Ballet's production from 1982 on DVD.
This is the second CD of music by Sir Arthur Bliss conducted by the composer to appear on the Heritage label. Checkmate was originally recorded in stereo by World Record Club (T52) and was reissued by EMI on CD some years ago. The Decca recordings of Things to Come and Welcome the Queen from 1959 are also in stereo. The performances that complete the CD are of an earlier vintage from 1954 and 1955 but the mono sound as presented here is more than respectable.
Checkmate is a thrilling score that has been recorded on numerous occasions but no other version quite matches the electricity captured here by Bliss and his orchestra. Despite one or two passing moments of insecure intonation and ensemble there is something very special about this. The Sinfonia of London was a regular house band of WRC in the 1950s and 60s and this is one of their most brilliant recordings. The Dance of the Red Pawns opens the suite with remarkable vitality and immediately demands the listener’s attention. The Entry of the Black Queen and Ceremony of the Red Bishops are prime examples of Bliss at his melancholic, atmospheric best. This is, dark, atmospheric music presented with elastic phrasing and nobility. Finale:Checkmate never fails to bring the house down. Norman Del Mar’s Proms performance, once available on a BBC Music Magazine CD, really hits the mark here but so does this studio recording. OK, the timpani would have benefitted from the use of harder sticks but that’s a minor quibble. The playing is inspired and the recording is close, bright and involving.
Miracle in the Gorbals falls just short of Checkmate in terms of memorable material but there are many thrilling, exciting moments to be heard. The Overture has an expectant, doom laden quality with its typical Bliss hallmarks - high, soaring violins and the dramatic use of timps. This dark atmosphere returns with a vengeance at the very end of the suite. Throughout the score there are many highlights including a bustling, hard driven movement called The Street and a wistful, melodic Intermezzo. The Philharmonia Orchestra plays the suite with considerable panache and the recording has been well transferred from LP. The recording quality is typical mid 50s Columbia mono and only occasionally does the CD transfer give away its vinyl source.
The Decca LSO sessions need no introduction. These are truly classic recordings. The March from Things to Come is the composer’s single most memorable idea and the LSO plays it magnificently, supported by fabulous vintage Decca stereo sound. Welcome the Queen is equally well recorded (except for a clumsy edit at 4’00’’) but the music itself, although joyous and melodic in nature, is the kind of thing best left to Walton. Theme and Cadenza is a lovely reminder of the great violinist Alfredo Campoli. This was originally coupled with his magnificent recording of the Bliss concerto (what about reissuing this, Heritage?). The recording belies its age and captures a great partnership between composer and soloist. This is a moving climax to another fine Heritage release.
I was delighted to see this back again! Bliss was an excellent conductor of his own music and these performances are, in many ways, unrivalled. The 'Checkmate Suite' has an urgency unlike any other recording known to me and a heightened sense of drama - a truly compelling performance. The recordings come from 1955-1960, but the Heritage transfer is excellent, conveying a great sense of immediacy. Miracle in the Gorbals is a highly memorable and darkly moving score - one of Bliss's finest scores and the drama and power of the ballet is fully conveyed here. I was especially thrilled to see Bliss's own recording of the suite from his film score 'Things to Come' back in the catalogue - largely because, not only is it a fine performance of the work as a whole, but it also includes 'Machines' - a short but compelling movement, which fully conveys a sense of looming threat and imminent catastrophe (it would be ideal background music for a documentary on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s). It has always mystified me why this movement (which Bliss obviously considered important enough to include in his own Suite) has been invariably left out of subsequent recordings (including that compiled by Christopher Palmer for example). As far as I'm aware the only other recording (and there are many of them) to include 'Machines' is Rumon Gamba's complete recording of 'Things to Come' on Chandos. It's also good to have back Campoli's recording of 'Theme and Cadenza for Solo Violin and Orchestra' and the cheerfully uplifting 'Welcome the Queen'. There have been earlier manifestations of some of these recordings on Belart and Dutton,for example (coupled with other works), but this excellent programme is unique.
Don't hesitate, this is one of the most rewarding CDs of music by Bliss. James Jolly provides concise, yet very helpful booklet notes too. Great stuff!