Bliss: String Quartet in A; String Quartet No. 1 in B flat; Conversations

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WORKS: String Quartet in A; String Quartet No. 1 in B flat; Conversations
PERFORMER: Nicholas Daniel (oboe, cor anglais), Michael Cox (flute, alto flute); Maggini Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557108
The A major Quartet dates from the First World War, in which Bliss saw active service, but there’s no sense of its being a ‘war work’ like Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony or Delius’s Double Concerto. Positive and outgoing for the most part, it leavens an English modal sensibility with some unexpected harmonic twists. Bliss withdrew it, as he did most of his early works, when he became interested in post-war continental trends. In Conversations (1920) there are jazzy rhythms as well as echoes of the harmonic sensibility of Poulenc in ‘The Wood’ and ‘The Ballroom’, and the busy polytonality of Milhaud in ‘The Committee Meeting’ and ‘The Tube at Oxford Circus’. Most striking is the ‘Soliloquy’ for cor anglais alone (beautifully played by Nicholas Daniel), almost a precursor of the Britten Metamorphoses for oboe. By 1941 Bliss was more mainstream, and the First Quartet is a good, solid British work which couldn’t come from any other period. The themes are angular in profile, but there’s still a vestigial modal feel, as well as an up-front freshness which serves as reminder that Bliss was half American. Performances are committed and enthusiastic, though occasionally this leads to rough tone and intonation – but better that than pallid caution. Martin Cotton