Another exemplary new Lyrita release featuring all the label's old virtues; fascinating and worthwhile repertoire performed superbly, backed up by excellent technical and production values.
Geoffrey Bush is severely under-represented in the current catalogue. Apart from the earlier Lyrita
disc of his two symphonies and some orchestral music - well worth hearing too - the current catalogue is not exactly awash with his work. There are some Chandos discs of songs and vocal works (wind instruments and piano (CHAN8819), orchestral song-cycles (CHAN8864) and another of songs featuring Ian Partridge, Benjamin Luxon and Teresa Cahill with the composer playing piano (CHAN8830)). More recently there's another Lyrita disc
of more songs and after that there is the occasional coupling in compilation discs. So, once again this disc is valuable in that it allows the listener at one sitting to sample a range of Bush's work. This disc is titled 'Small Pieces for orchestra'. but small should not be confused with slight. Paul Conway's reliably excellent liner-note opens with a Bush quote; "... my music is lyrical, rhythmic, economical, clear cut in texture and, as far as I can make it, direct of utterance." However well that may apply to Bush's entire oeuvre it is certainly true of the music on this disc.
The BBC's annual Light Music Festival in the 1950s seems to have resulted in many joyfully unpretentious works - aside from Bush's Concerto for Light Orchestra
presented here, Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances
spring immediately to mind. With a brilliantly light touch, Bush fashions a six movement work out of some Thomas Arne songs. The music straddles the centuries in much the same way Stravinsky's Pulcinella
does; recognisably drawing on music of an earlier age but using the musical vocabulary and rhythmic energy of the twentieth century. Do not
think light music in the sense of a Coates or Ketèlbey, this is music that delights in its own existence; it does not seek to be profound or weighty, simply joyful in the act of being. At the same time Bush steers a canny path with music that bubbles with energy and enough rhythmic bite and harmonic tang to lift it way beyond anything trite or trivial. The very opening has something of the scurrying animation of a film score main title immediately showing the calibre of the Northern Chamber Orchestra's playing. The virtuosity required underlines the 'Concerto for Orchestra' title. There are echoes of Prokofiev's Classical
symphony out of Walton's Portsmouth Point
. In the preface to the score Bush indicates that sometimes the Arne originals are followed fairly closely, as in the second movement Siciliana
. At other points they provide a jumping-off point - a lovely oboe solo here. This is a quite delightful score beautifully crafted and one that deserves far wider familiarity. Conway deems it ones of Bush's most popular scores. I must admit this was my first encounter but a most enjoyable one.
There follows an early but delightful string miniature - Natus est Immanuel
. The origins of the work are as a piano piece written when Bush was nineteen. It is a remarkably assured and very beautiful piece - all the more surprising given its keyboard origin. Again I had not previously encountered this score but it deserves to be part of any string orchestra's repertoire. My only quibble with the entire disc is the performance style chosen for Bush's arrangement in collaboration with Francis Harvey of a suite of Matthew Locke. As throughout the disc, the Northern Chamber Orchestra play quite beautifully but misguidedly - in my opinion - they apply rather self-conscious period performance practice with little or no vibrato and less than wholly convincing phrasing. This still 'works' but sounds rather pale and wan alongside the rest of the vibrant programme.
There follows another triumph for Raphael Wallfisch's ever-expanding and consistently impressive discography. Although wholly original, it does serve to underline Bush's fascination with music of earlier times with a very clearly neo-classical feel. Particularly impressive is the central Adagio
which has a Bachian certainty about its steadily moving walking bass line over which Bush unfurls a very memorable and extremely beautiful long-breathed melody. Wallfisch's remarkable skill - not just here but throughout his vast repertoire - is to play what has to be unfamiliar music with the certainty and conviction usually granted only through long acquaintance. The technique is rock-solid and the sound beautiful but it this ability to project the 'meaning' of the works that is most remarkable. Formally the work is unusual in that the opening two sections (fast/slow) are of nearly equal length but after the adagio the closing tempo primo is little more than a coda lasting less than a minute and a half and using material from the opening allegro moderato
. I am not yet quite convinced by this structure - the first two sections are so impressive that it does feel a little short-changed by the abrupt and brief ending. Perhaps more listenings will change my mind; as it stands this is another very enjoyable concertante work which again would benefit any chamber orchestra looking for unusual programmes.
Likewise the Two Miniatures for String Orchestra
- exactly the sort of repertoire that string players delight in playing, making a welcome change from the standard fare offered up with predictable regularity. They make a well balanced pair with the gentle lyricism of the Lullaby
well contrasted by the energy and drive of the Promenade
. The disc is completed by two works, firstly the Finale for a Concert
- a work aimed at amateur players to give them a flavour of contemporary music without all the technical hurdles this can sometimes entail. Conway describes it as buoyant and colourful and that really says it all. The programme closes with an arrangement by Christopher Palmer of John Ireland's The Holy Boy
for cello and strings. Ireland was Bush's teacher and that relationship evolved into a close friendship. In any case in as poetic and rapt a performance as this no other justification is necessary - a beautiful close to a disc of real quality.
One of the quirks of the 'original' Lyrita releases was a complete absence of recording information. That is the one aspect I am pleased that the new releases have altered. Producer Andrew Walton and engineer Mike Clements are able to get the credit they are due for producing a disc that is in the best technical traditions of the label. The sound is ideally rich full and detailed. Even the odd creaking chair adds to the ambience. It might seem rather petty and unimportant but I am glad that the current releases feel and look like the originals. Everything has been kept in the spirit of those earlier discs; clean unfussy presentation, well laid out - a model of clarity and understated quality. On reflection that last phrase could apply to the excellent music too. All in all another triumph for Lyrita reborn.