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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major op. 55 (transc. for solo piano by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1908))
(I Andante Nobilmente e semplice [21.16]; II Allegro Molto [8.23]; III Adagio [11.57]; IV Lento, Allegro [13.21]) [55:47]
Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Piano Sonata in B minor op. 2 (premiere recording) (1921) [11:47]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 21-22 August 2006, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. DDD
Recorded with financial assistance from the Alan Bush Trust
SOMM SOMMCD069 [66:47]

I am not sure how, or to what purpose, we are offered this Elgar disc. It can be a collectors’ item, a virtuosic demonstration or an academic exercise. One thing is certain, this difficult transcription by Karg-Elert scarcely suits the purpose for which it was intended: that is to provide access to music that could normally only be heard very seldom. Alternatively - and here each listener will have his or her own views – it could well be listened to merely for the music’s sake.
Although the soloist Mark Bebbington makes an excellent case for any or all of these purposes the transcription fulfils most nearly, with the notes and analysis, an academic exercise which the average listener may find hard to follow.
The opening passage, that “great and glorious tune”, is shorn of its dark majesty in the shadowy voice of the keyboard. This is especially the case when one recalls Basil Maine’s evocative description of that ‘nobile e semplice’ as “quietly and gravely sung by that most serene choir of voices, woodwind and violas”.
The task of reproducing on the keyboard the very personal subtleties of Elgar’s orchestral voice is a formidable one. Bars 37 and 39 in the first movement are a case in point. Fig 18 also emerges rather like a barrel-organ. Yet I fancy Lady Elgar might yet hear at fig 66 2nd movement ‘the sound of rushes by the river’. The overall architecture of the Symphony – remarkable for its time – is held together well by this bold young pianist. It is after all a glorious piece of music!
It is tempting to wonder just what the result might have been had Karg-Elert chosen to transcribe the work for organ where resonance and depth of tone might have been preferable to the comparatively limited resources of loud (fff) and soft (ppp) available to the pianist. Bebbington however argues Karg-Elert’s case with carefully chosen illustrations and it is worth following the argument. The purely technical musical argument may be of less interest to the average listener. Nevertheless the complexities of ‘transcription’ are worth penetrating and far preferable to the appalling trend today of ‘easy’ simplified ‘arrangements’ which cater for the uncritical.
This is a curious coupling. The nobilmente Elgar and the Marxist Bush. Neither is quite as it seems however for in these pairings Elgar seems the more revolutionary against the conservative Bush sonata. The Sonata is an early work - op. 2, written at the age of 21. A recording for comparison with his A flat major Sonata of 1971 would yield much. Yet why he decided to wthdraw it from publication is a mystery. It was in fact printed but unissued and apparently the publishers have no archive score. This makes this recording doubly welcome. The Sonata impressed Frederick Corder, who pronounced it a worthy successor to the youthful Benjamin Dale sonata! It shows several influences – all of which you would expect from a 21 year old at the Royal Academy – though Bush later repudiated the influence of Wagner, which is certainly there in the rhapsodic middle pages!

The other main influence is that of John Ireland, although Bush did not come to study with Ireland until 1922. He voiced a rather simplistic view of the form (piano sonata) while at college: “I chose a Sonata … it suggests a composition of some magnitude” (‘The British Piano Sonata’, Lisa Hardy, Boydell Press, 2001, p.178). But there is nothing grandiose about this very attractive work. It is in one movement, opening Allegro deciso with a brusque and challenging Schumannesque figure. Its progress is punctuated by breathless hesitations of the rhythm leading, via an attractive little cadential passage, to a lyrical, equally hesitant chorale-like six bars. This is developed in Ireland-style 6ths until, after recapitulation, comes the heart of the work. Andante Tranquillo, a falling figure - rather reminiscent of the Bruch Violin Concerto - leads into the final pages. There few, I think, could dispute the influence of the rhapsodic strains of Wagner - a ‘love poem’ despite the somewhat bombastic final cadence!
Colin Scott-Sutherland

see also reviews by Robert Costin and Jonathan Woolf 


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