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Monday, January 23, 2017

Arthur Bliss - A Colour Symphony; Violin Concerto (Richard Hickox; Lydia Mordkovitch)


Composer: Arthur Bliss
  1. A Colour Symphony: I. Purple. Andante maestoso
  2. A Colour Symphony: II. Red. Allegro vivace
  3. A Colour Symphony: III. Blue. Gently flowing
  4. A Colour Symphony: IV. Green. Moderato
  5. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: I. Allegro ma non troppo
  6. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: II. Vivo
  7. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: III. Introduzione: Andante sostenuto - Allegro deciso in modo zingaro

Lydia Mordkovitch, violin (5-7)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox, conductor

Date: 2006
Label: Chandos



Composed in the mid 1950s for Alfredo Campoli, the Bliss Violin Concerto has never made much headway in the repertoire; although two Campoli recordings were issued at various times, this new Chandos version seems to be the only one readily available today. Its neglect is not hard to explain. It’s a big, meaty, backward-looking concerto that demands a great deal of virtuosity from the performers and Sitzfleisch from the audience. But it doesn’t offer very much in return. Despite the promise of its achingly mournful opening, it’s melodically unmemorable (it certainly doesn’t boast either the rapture or the nobility of the Elgar); and for all its glowering intensity, it falls too readily into harangues (there’s surely none of the spiritual depth we hear in the Berg or the Shostakovich Firsts). In terms of formal ingenuity, it’s no match for the Bartók Second; and despite its virtuoso demands, those looking for superficial dazzle would be better served by the Khachaturian. It’s got something of Sibelius’s dourness—but lacks the concentration with which Sibelius keeps us enthralled. Most of all, it doesn’t know when to stop—the ending of the finale is so drawn out that, were the piece not so earnest, you’d be apt to suspect a joke in the manner of Malcolm Arnold’s nearly contemporary Grand Grand Overture . In sum, it’s a skillful but ultimately unlovable work.

Still, it’s well worth hearing, at least once in a while—and Lydia Mordkovitch, a violinist rarely accused of diffidence, throws it at us with undeniable conviction. In the process, she plays down whatever respite the music offers—the refreshingly jazzy asides in the first movement are too staid, and the second movement is arguably too driven; but she’s so courageous as she slashes her way through the thorniest moments, so luminous in the more lyrical outpourings (say, the opening of the finale), and so technically assured that you hardly mind the overkill. Hickox supports her well, especially in those soaring passages that may remind you of Korngold’s heady scores for Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

There’s a lot more competition in A Colour Symphony , of course—and here the performance seems less compelling. Yes, it’s a solid reading—but that may be precisely the problem. Certainly, next to Vernon Handley’s venomous recording, Hickox’s seems just a bit too well behaved. It’s not simply that he’s palpably less exciting, failing to match either Handley’s assertive stride in the second movement or his manic energy in the mechanistic passages of the finale. Beyond that, he seems less fragrant as well, as he pushes over harmonies that register poignantly under Handley’s baton. Handley is more alert to the music’s transgressive elements, too; particularly in the second movement, Hickox is apt to smooth out the music’s lurches. Still, the music’s power and ingenuity come through. Certainly, anyone seeking an up-to-date, luxuriously engineered recording of the Concerto should snap up this release.

-- Peter J. Rabinowitz, FANFARE

More reviews:


Arthur Bliss (2 August 1891 – 27 March 1975) was an English composer and conductor. After the First World War, he quickly became known as an unconventional and modernist composer, but within the decade he began to display a more traditional and romantic side in his music. In Bliss's later years, his work was respected but was thought old-fashioned, and it was eclipsed by the music of younger colleagues such as William Walton and Benjamin Britten. Since his death, his compositions have been well represented on record, and many of his better-known works remain in the repertoire of British orchestras.


Richard Hickox (5 March 1948 – 23 November 2008) was an English conductor of choral, orchestral and operatic music. He served as Artistic Director of the Northern Sinfonia (1982-1990), Associate Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (1985-2008) and Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (2000-2006). His recording repertoire concentrated on British music, in which he made a number of recording premieres for Chandos Records (he made over 280 recordings for this company) and won five Gramophone Awards.


Lydia Mordkovitch (30 April 1944 – 9 December 2014) was a Russian-born British violinist. She studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory under David Oistrakh, then serving as his assistant from 1968 to 1970. Mordkovitch settled permanently in the UK signed a recording contract with Chandos in 1980, after the company RCA, with which she had previously had a contract, went bankrupt. She was featured in over 60 recordings for Chandos. Mordkovitch became a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1995 as a specialist in Russian music.


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