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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No.1 in A flat major Op.55 (1908) (transc. solo piano Sigfrid Karg-Elert) [54:57] Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Piano Sonata in B minor Op.2 (1921) [11:47]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, August 2006
SOMM SOMMCD069 [66:47]

After the immense success of Elgar’s First Symphony, Novello’s – the composer’s publisher – selected Sigfrid Karg-Elert to write a piano reduction. Such was the success of this that he was engaged a few years later to write an arrangement of the Second Symphony as well. Karg-Elert is now best known for his organ and harmonium works, though he wrote for the orchestra and piano as well and this is a feature that is becoming more apparent on disc – indeed CPO has an exhaustive series of his compositions underway at the moment. Largely an autodidact and a generation Elgar’s junior Karg-Elert was fortunate to be befriended and helped by such as Grieg and Reznicek. And he was the ideal man for the job.
The arrangement lays bare the harmonic bones of the Symphony and Karg-Elert’s meticulous work also ensures that he has attempted to reproduce facets of orchestration and colour in the piano writing. This is a terrifically difficult matter given the nature of Elgar’s opulent late Romantic scoring, the intense, quivering and jagged nature of much of the first movement, motifs coursing throughout, the legato beauty of the slow movement, the difficult scherzo and the pile-driving element of the finale’s ambiguous triumphalism.
It’s the teeming incident of the opening movement that causes the most problems pianistically. Bebbington is a remarkably agile and sensitive player as we have heard before on disc but neither nor David Owen Norris, whose Radio 3 broadcast is the only other performance of the Karg-Elert that I’ve heard, can escape the palpable tension and strain that is inherent in the reduction. There are times when six hands are called for not two. The thematic and harmonic complexities of this movement and the finale then are the most difficult to convey; especially the more declamatory writing in the finale. The Scherzo is less awkward and the slow movement too. Here the plasticity and nobility of the writing is at its most marked, and maybe Karg-Elert’s mind turned to Liszt and to Schumann in his work.
Bebbington has been accorded a remarkably sonorous and sympathetic recording in Symphony Hall and full justice has been done to Karg-Elert’s monumental work.
The coupling is unusual, the first recording of Alan Bush’s 1921 one movement B minor sonata. It’s a chromatically powerful twelve-minute affair richly indebted to Liszt and written when Bush was a student at the Royal Academy, Its most attractive feature is the warm, untroubled lyricism at its heart and the rather decisive snappy themes and rich chording; a good re-discovery which Bebbington, its champion, plays with rich eloquence.
With fine notes and another first class recording for the Bush this is splendid undertaking. A niche market disc undoubtedly but a valuable one.
Jonathan Woolf


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