Arthur Bliss Society Recital Champions Little Known British Piano Repertoire

10/07/2016

Britten, Stevenson, Holst. Venables, Bliss: Maria Marchant (oiano), St Andrew’s Church, Montpellier, Cheltenham, 9.7.2016. (RJ)

Benjamin Britten: Holiday DiaryEarly Morning Bathe, Sailing, Funfair, Night

Ronald Stevenson: Peter Grimes Fantasy

Gustav Holst: Toccata

Ian Venables: Caprice, Op 35

Sir Arthur Bliss: TriptychMeditation, Dramatic Recitative, Capriccio

The Arthur Bliss Society’s annual Summer Recital offered a number of musical gems by British composers which are heard all too rarely. The recital was preceded by an informative talk by Andrew Burn which shed particular light on the Britten and Britten-related works.

Holiday Diary was composed in 1934 when Britten aged 21 had completed three years of study under John  Ireland, his composition professor, and Arthur Benjamin the dedicatee of this work who taught him piano. Here and there one could discern Ireland’s influence, notably in Sailing and the final movement, but elsewhere Britten’s emerging voice was in evidence.

There was a chill in the air at the hesitant start to the Early Morning Bathe but this soon disappeared as the swimming got under way with regular strokes which became ever more powerful. Sailing began with a gentle rocking motion, but the waves became choppier for a time until the storm subsided and calm was restored. Funfair was good lively fun with Maria Merchant’s fingers sipping up and down the keyboard in helter-skelter fashion. Night, by contrast, was restful and quiet with no nasty bumps.

Ten years later the composer was working on his first substantial opera, Peter Grimes, a work of considerable complexity which cannot be condensed easily into ten or fifteen minutes. However, Ronald Stevenson (who died last year) was bold enough to try in his Peter Grimes Fantasy and it seems that Britten approved of his efforts. The Fantasy comprises on two subjects, the first depicting the rise of Grimes and the second his fall.  The soloist brought out the dramatic tension of the piece with skill rising to a dynamic climax which was followed by a quiet coda based on the text of “What harbour shelters peace?” This was altogether music of some profundity and intelligence and it seems a shame that Stevenson appears to fallen off the radar.

One composer who is not forgotten – especially in his home town of Cheltenham – is Gustav Holst. His Toccata was a silver wedding anniversary present and as such is not particularly serious. It is based on the folk melody Newburn Lads which Holst had heard played on a hurdy-gurdy probably within walking distance of St Andrew’s Church.

Britain still boasts a few good living composers, and it was splendid to have Ian Venables in the audience to hear a performance of his Caprice. Bells seemed to provide part of the the framework to the central lyrical cantilena episode influenced by his Op 28 and 33 songs.

Finally Sir Arthur himself strode on to the platform – not literally of course – for his Triptych. As Maria Marchant pointed out in her illuminating introduction, there is a sense of unease in Meditation, and this is underlined in the complex harmonic language of the movement. The Dramatic Recitative was exactly as described on the label with virtuosic improvisatory flourishes contrasted with sustained chordal progressions. A lively rhythmic Capriccio tested  Maria Merchant’s dexterity to the limit and she came through with flying colours.

The mood was lightened by the encore: a quickstep Bliss composed for the Punch and Judy Ball at the Savoy Hotel. Sadly, nobody got up to dance!

Roger Jones

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