S&H ConcertReview

Alan BUSH: Piano Concerto, Op. 18 Rolf Hind, piano Ashley Holland, baritone Apollo Voices, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin BBC Maida Vale Studios, 19 December 2000

In the centenery year of Alan Bush's birth, a performance of his Piano Concerto, the first apparently for over 30 years, stood out among several events which have enabled at least the beginnings of an overview of this prolific and distinctive composer.

Playing on this occasion for just under 55 minutes, the scale of Bush's concerto is exceeded only by the Busoni (and no doubt those, all awaiting performance, by Sorabji). Yet while the latter is an apotheosis of musical romanticism before the onset of Busoni's often rarified mature idiom, the Bush is recognisably an extension of the powerfully focused approach that had already yielded the superb Dialectic for string quartet, amongst other chamber and vocal works. Like Busoni, Bush marries a strongly wrought formal architecture to a final vocal section which makes explicit the work's aesthetic: here, the need for communist equity in a divided and unequal world. Provocative stuff in the England of 1938, and Randall Swingler's verse, tough and abrasive, no doubt detracted from its wider context.

The problem today is that the work has little more to offer than a period take on a heady and combative era. One would not have expected overt melodic interest in such a work - indeed Bush turned this apparent limitation to his advantage on numerous occasions over the two decades following Dialectic - but the harmonic drabness and motivic plainness of the concerto was surprising.

The substantial opening movement evolves as an elaborate march fantasy, with virtuoso piano writing which, if not decorative, is neither integral to an argument that the rhythmically straitjacketed material seems incapable of building. The scherzo makes scant use of its irregular metres, beyond prolonging a five-minute movement to almost twice its natural duration (Paul Conway's description, of "... a wild stratospheric ostinato ..." is fancifully wide of the mark). The slow movement opens promisingly with sustained arioso writing deep down in the orchestra, but loses focus at the piano's entry, and builds to a sincere but emotionally cramped climax.

The finale resumes something of the martial import of the first movement, pausing on a drum roll before an aggressively declaimed choral accusation which all too self-consciously calls Schiller to mind. The remainder traverses a sequence of co-ordinated but hardly memorable musical paragraphs, the supposed naïvety of the text less worrying than the schematic dreariness of its setting, and culminating in a peroration curiously redolent of Shostakovich's second and third symphonies in its having impact without substance.

It would be easy to put the work's failure down to the simple premise of forcing musical substance into a political mould. Yet a work such as Hans Eisler's Deutsche Symphonie, substantially completed just prior to the Bush, shows how a balance can be achieved where integrity of idea and intrinsic worth of music are actually enhanced in the process. By comparison, Bush's concerto, for all its scale and ambition, is simply not equal to its task.

All credit to Rolf Hind for mastering a piano part such as he will have few chances to repeat, and to Ashley Holland and Apollo Voices for extracting as much character as they could from an ungrateful text in an unyielding setting. The BBCSO sounded well prepared, under Leonard Slatkin's sympathetic guidance (following on from a cohesive if slightly lacklustre Tippett Second Symphony). Good that he should take the trouble to revive a work which, in the event, cannot be said to warrant frequent revival.

Richard Whitehouse

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