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Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Symphony No. 1 in C Op. 21 (1940) [32:54]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 33 Nottingham (1949) [35:20]
Royal Northern College of Music Orchestra/Douglas Bostock
rec. 7-8 Feb 2004, RNCM, Manchester, DDD

Slowly Alan Bush's musical legacy is finding its way onto commercial discs. Here is another positive step towards completing the discography.

Make no mistake, this is an important disc presenting Bush’s first two symphonies in their premiere commercial recordings on CD. Somehow the plight of such music is typified by the source of this disc (a Danish company) and its performers (a Music College Orchestra - exemplary in technical and artistic terms).

Both symphonies have a political subtext or linkage. The First, just like the masterful Violin Concerto (on Claudio), has each of its movements describe a process from aspiration, to greed, to frustration, to liberation. Aspiration proceeds as if in an expressionist dream while the second movement is gritty and angular - echoes of Shostakovich, Kurt Weill (his two symphonies) and even Walton. A kind of emotional constipation settles over the third movement which in its subdued mood recalls Piston and Diamond. The finale has a flavour of rejoicing - a certain teeth-clenched searing Soviet determination and a predominantly public face. While the strings are not as voluptuous as they might be this is a completely enjoyable performance and the hoarse 'tin' of the French Horns at 3.24 will bring a smile of pleasure to anyone who rejoices in Soviet performing style. This rather fierce puritanical hymn of joy was later extracted and revised as a Character Portrait - Defender of Peace as a tribute to Marshal Tito (Malcolm Williamson was later to write his own Hymn to Tito) and premiered in Vienna in 1952 under Bush's baton. The Symphony was premiered complete at the Proms with the LPO conducted by the composer on 24 July 1942.

The Second Symphony was commissioned by the Nottingham Cooperative Society and was premiered in Nottingham on 27 June 1949. It was written after serious reflection prompted by the Zhdanov decree and by Bush's attendance at the 1949 Prague Congress. The bourgeois 12-tone experimentation of part of the First Symphony is now rejected in favour of a more folk-inflected accessibility. It is the most popular (least unpopular?) of the four with previous performances conducted by the composer, Brian Priestman and Malcolm Nabarro. The four movements retain their programme titles (unlike the First Symphony). The first is Sherwood Forest. It carries the stigmata of Britten's Grimes (still fresh in the memory from the 1945 premiere), of early Tippett, the Third Symphony of Roy Harris (in the strings - Harris also had Communist sympathies) and the jollity of Holst's Brook Green. The movement is notable for the prominent roles allocated to the horns.

The Second movement is Clifton Grove - a broad Largo in which the writing for strings is almost Delian. The flow is steady and from the sable tones of the strings rises a duet for cello and clarinet which harks back to Tippett. The Castle Rock movement is grippingly active, taut, with its exciting rhythmic life marked out by staccato writing for strings and crashing percussion. The finale is Goose Fair. It recaptures the folk flavour with echoes of Vaughan Williams (Eighth). In the yearning string writing even William Alwyn is hinted at (his First Symphony is contemporaneous with the Bush Second).

The Second Symphony was issued on LP in the early 1960s on a primitive sounding Melodiya. The composer conducted the USSR Symphony Orchestra in a live performance in Moscow on 3 October 1963. That recording while still of archival interest can now be pensioned off to the back-shelves.

The notes written by Lewis Foreman are sumptuously full and detailed.

There are two more symphonies to be recorded so I hope they will find a suitable company. The Third is The Byron for baritone, chorus and orchestra (premiered in the DDR by Herbert Kegel's Radio orchestra). The Fourth is The Lascaux premiered in Manchester in 1986. Then there is the Concert Suite for cello and orchestra (championed by Zara Nelsova in the UK) and the mighty 1937 Piano Concerto. The latter screams out for a premiere recording and a few may remember Leonard Slatkin’s impressive revival of the piece with the BBCSO in December 2000.

Can we hope that the next disc from the RNCM, Bostock and Peter Olufsen's ClassicO company will present Stanley's Bate's turmoil-stricken Third Symphony from 1940 and his Fourth from the 1950s? The present disc is the 13th volume in the ClassicO British Symphonic series so perhaps a 14th is not out of the question.

For now this disc is welcome indeed for its spirited performances (things really catch fire in the finale of No. 2), the polished artistry of the RNCM orchestra and the consummate direction of Douglas Bostock. The final optimistic moments of Bush's Nottingham where glorious confidence carries all before it threaded through with a slight a Weill-like asperity.

Music of a distinctive mastery with a peculiarly British rigour and a constrained emotionalism.

Rob Barnett

The British Symphonic Collection

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