commissioned by the British Council for the British Week at the New York World's Fair
Sir Arthur Bliss: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1939)
Allegro con brio
Andante maestoso: Molto vivo
This concerto was commissioned by the British Council for the British Week at the New York World's Fair 1939, and is dedicated to the People of the United Sates of America. It was first performed in Carnegie Hall, New York, on 10th June 1939, by Solomon with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. It was taken up by pianists with enthusaism both for its musical content and its superbly pianistic writing, and went into the repertoire of many performers, including Kendall Taylor, Shulamith Shafir, Noel Mewton-Wood, Ruth Gipps, Clive Lythgoe, Trevor Barnard and Frank Wibaut (to name only a few).
The first movement, Allegro con brio, opens with one of the most scintillating (and incidentally formidable!) octave passages in the repertoire of the piano. The orchestra then announces the strong, joyful first subject; in spite of its genuinely 20th century flavour this is clearly in B flat major, and the soloist takes it over in F major. Elaborate passage-work, with arabesques and a short cadenza, leads to a beautiful and romantic second subject. The development section makes much of a rhythmic pattern connected with the first subject, and a lilting syncopated passage for the soloist starts a build-up to a big climax. The first and second subjects reappear in due course, and are followed by a large-scale cadenza, in the course of which the pianist has a duet with the timpanist. There is a brief coda.
The Adagietto opens with a question on the piano and its answer on the strings. After a repetition of the question in another key, the soloist presents the main subject, a cantilena theme with wide intervals (a 7th, a 9th and so on) that yet makes a readily memorable tune. This leads straight into a third idea with triplet chords. The rest of the movement consists of rhapsodising around these three themes; at the end the piano asks one more question, ending on a strident chord - resolved, ppp, on a magical string chord of E major.
An ominous brass chord and pizzicato cellos and basses open the finale. This is a genuine pianist's "war-horse" movement, requiring tremendous vitality and strength to compete with clear-cut but energetic orchestration. The Andante maestoso introduction gives the soloist the opportunity to introduce a fine tune, with passage-work covering most of the keyboard. The Molto vivo is of the tarantella type, and having once got going it is also something of a moto perpetuo, apart from one slower passage in the middle in which the oboe has two short but vital solo phrases. The fast tempo son returns, and continues unabated until the coda; here the Andante maestoso of the introduction returns, no longer ominous, but transformed to a splendid glowing tune in B flat major, with the soloist cresting great waves of sound; A brief return to Molto vivo ends this, perhaps the finest piano concerto written in the 20th century.
© Ruth Gipps