REVIEW: Julian Bliss, Sunday Series, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate

Clarinettist Julian Bliss
Clarinettist Julian Bliss

I really enjoy the Sunday Series of morning concerts from Harrogate International Festivals. Top artists, excellent and diverse programmes and a delightful setting. This was no exception – I have only heard Julian Bliss on recordings previously, so to see him perform live was exciting.

Firstly I hadn’t realised how young he was for such an accomplished clarinettist, apparently he played for the Queen when he was 13 in 2002! His accompanist on the piano was Robert Bottriell and it was plain to see that these two work together closely.

Performers differ on many fronts there are those who say very little and those who keep you up to date with everything that is happening – Julian Bliss was of the latter persuasion and he started by explaining that the choice of programme was to some extent dictated by the well known clarinet repertoire being too regularly used. So the first item on the Programme was Schumann’s Fantasy pieces, the third movement is lively and the piano is strong. Normally tend to be less favourable about Schuman’s compositions, but I am gradually being converted.

Next we had Alban Berg’s Vier Stucke (Four Pieces); I haven’t come across Berg before. Although composed in 1913 it was not publicly performed until 1919.

I thought they were extraordinary, huge control required and the final movement held great suspense.

I’ve not heard of Martinu as a composer before – his Clarinet Sonatina, was written in 1956, not long before his death; although there are three movements, it is played as a continuous piece, the first movement being jolly and the 3rd movement vigorous, the piano having a lot to say.

The final piece before the interval was Messager’s Solo de Concours; this was written as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire in 1899. Composed in three sections it is the ultimate showpiece for the clarinet. Requiring great skill Julian Bliss made it look easy, but it patently was not.

After the interval we had one of my favourite Chopin compositions Nocturne in E flat major Op 9 No 2. Written for the piano it is equally beautiful with the clarinet, Julian Bliss made it a musical delight. Brahms Wie Melodien zieht es mir was short and sweet, being a musical version of Klaus Groths poem, which discusses the beauty of words and how they affect our thoughts.

At this point Julian asked whether we had noticed his cheeks puffed out, he then went on to explain that he was using circular breathing; as a technique, this enables a player to play long continuous notes. Essentially this entails inhaling through the nose whilst maintaining airflow through the instrument using the cheeks as bellows.

There followed Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, this was written for the French horn and rearranged for clarinet by Julian. The delicacy of the Adagio was a big contrast to the cheerfulness of the Allegro.

Finally we had another Brahms composition Sonata No 1 in F minor. Composed late in his life it was very much Brahms gruffness followed by sweetness.

As an encore we had Monte’s Czardas a wonderful crazy piece where the clarinettist skills are really tested.

Julian Bliss and Robert Bottriell are really great team and Bliss, like his name was blissful. A fine concert with an interesting and diverse programme.