In 1938, Arthur Bliss received a commission from the British Council which promised him exposure on a global stage. And on June 10 th, 1939, with the Second World War looming in Europe, Bliss’s Piano Concerto was premiered at Carnegie Hall in the context of the World Fair being held at that time in New York. Solomon was the soloist, while Sir Adrian Boult conducted the New York Philharmonic. Bliss was then at the height of his powers – he had recently completed Checkmate , a ballet brimful of exuberant vitality. If anything, the Piano Concerto goes a step further; it is a Romantic concerto in the grand manner, almost 40 minutes long, cast in moderately conventional form: a giant Allegro con brio opening movement, a reflective Adagietto and a quick finale that is preceded by a reflective slow introduction. It is a purely abstract piece – and that, and the shadow of war that conspired to leave it in obscurity for the first years after its transatlantic birth, and the almost overblown nature of its heroics, mean that it has never really become a repertory piece.
This release from Australia ( sic) resurrects the second recording of the piece, originally made in 1962 (following the celebrated one by Solomon and the Liverpool PO under Boult). Trevor Barnard is an Australian resident and is still very active there, as teacher, writer and adjudicator. He was born in Britain and recorded the Bliss Concerto at the tender age of 24. (His recording of Bliss’s Piano Sonata has also appeared on the Divine Art label). It is clear throughout that he has the full measure of the piece. Barnard is well up to the taxing demands in the outer movements – the mighty cadenza at the end of the first movement is a tour de force. You get the strong impression that by sheer force of personality, the accompanying Philharmonia under Sargent were galvanised into urgent response, so that (despite my hint of reservation about the piece as mentioned above) Bliss is here receiving the best possible advocacy. The drawback is the sound, and the fact that it is the only work on the disc. Despite the admirable efforts of the Australian engineers in the remastering of the original tapes and removing extraneous sounds, there is no way it can be called state-of-the-art, with the piano in unpleasant close-up, the orchestra unblended and in an uningratiating acoustic.
While it is good to have this pioneering performance restored to the catalogues, I am not convinced it does the piece any great favours, and is probably best left to specialists only – particularly as it is in head to head competition with a much more recent offering that is no whit its inferior in virtuosity and panache.