When this recording of the Bliss Piano Concerto was first released by EMI in 1962, it caused quite a ripple in the music world, the performance by the British pianist Trevor Barnard receiving the highest critical acclaim. He was just 24 at the time, having studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and a glittering career as a soloist was obviously awaiting him. He moved to the States in 1967 to take the post of faculty member of the New England Conservatory in Boston. From there he made his home in Melbourne, where he now lectures at the University’s Faculty of Music. With recording companies seldom venturing into Australia, Barnard largely disappeared from the international scene, a great loss to us as this disc so tellingly confirms. Now the British independent record company Divine Art has licensed the original master tape from EMI, its engineers achieving wonders in updating the sound, which can now stand comparison with many recent releases.
Bliss was already 46 when he composed his only piano concerto, though the work has that fresh quality of youthful inspiration, the opening movement exuding a typically British swagger. It was intended for the World Fair held in New York in 1939, and premiered by Solomon and the New York Philharmonic in the Carnegie Hall. The British never really took to the work, and it has, at best, retained a place on the fringe of the repertoire. That has to be a cause for regret, as the score, in a post-Romantic idiom, provides the soloist with a red-blooded virtuoso role. If any performance could revitalize interest, this is surely the one. The concerto perfectly reflects Sargent’s flamboyant style of conducting, Barnard responding with playing of scintillating brilliance. The first-movement cadenza in particular is a dazzling showpiece. The details of the score are meticulously observed. As an example of the care taken, listen to the scrupulous grading of the long crescendo that starts at 9:10 in the first movement. The central movement is most beautifully handled and much is made of the quiet passage in the finale, bringing an enhanced sense of brilliance to the fast sections.
The early 1960s were within the golden era of the Philharmonia; the multitude of colours they brought to the score was remarkable, with every member of the woodwinds a distinguished musician. The booklet comments on problems encountered during the digital remastering, though the end product provides exemplary orchestral detail, the rather muffled timpani the only adverse comment. With less than 38 minutes the disc does offer a rather miserly time, even for a midprice issue. For this listener they have been some of the most precious minutes I have spent in recent months.