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Clarke Busch piano SRCD408
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Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Theme and Variations (1908)
Cortège (1930)
He Hath Filled the Hungry, transcription from Bach’s Magnificat, BWV243 (c mid-1950s)
William Busch (1901-1945)
Allegretto quasi Pastorale (1933)
Gigue (1923)
Theme, Variations and Fugue (1928)
Intermezzo (1935)
‘Nicholas’ Variations (1942)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. 2021, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

Though their lives were in so many ways dissimilar, there were strong connections between William Busch and Rebecca Clarke. It was Busch who premiered Clarke’s Cortège, which she had dedicated to him in 1930, playing it from the manuscript in a radio performance. Their music, though, represents rather different traditions, something that becomes apparent in their solo piano compositions.

Her Theme and Variations for piano dates from around 1908 when she was still a pupil of Stanford. It’s quite a long piece at nearly 24-minutes and neatly characterised as well as strongly differentiating variation from variation. There is some folkloric influence as well as wistful and romantic elements and minor key tristesse, nobly chorded. Serious-minded in places, there’s a childlike fairy tale feel to one of the variations that leads on to an expressive Lento and an effective – though in the final resort, ultimately perhaps underwhelming – Passacaglia conclusion.

Simon Callaghan has programmed the disc around this variation and two similar sounding works by Busch. The Theme, Variations and Fugue dates from 1928, the year after Busch first encountered Clarke and whilst he had begun to study under John Ireland who apparently judged the piece ‘very formidable’. One can hear why. Whilst it’s clear and direct, and free from romanticised paragraphs, it has a distinct harmonic palette and expressively leans to the jagged-pensive. Elliptical in places, too, it’s a quite forward-looking work within accepted bounds. His most mature work is the 1942 ‘Nicholas’ Variations but mature should be understood in the context of his sadly short life; Busch died in his mid-40s in 1945. He showed this set of variations to both Tippett and Alan Bush, both of whom seem to have admired it. There’s a grittiness and terseness to this set which doesn’t mean it lacks capricious lightness in variations 12 to 14. The prevailing mood, though, remains somewhat terse, tending to the granitic and purposeful and ending powerfully. Written as it is for his young son – who became a distinguished principal horn player - it may not be hard to read into it Busch’s unease and fear for the future, not just for Nicholas but for the whole country.

The rest of the programme contains smaller pieces, though they are not without interest. Busch’s Allegretto quasi Pastorale is lightly rhythmic but goes through a series of abruptly truncated moods whilst his Gigue is, as the kids say, super-abrupt at only 1:19. The Intermezzo (1935) is another briskly attractive piece and rounds out Busch’s complete solo piano music adeptly. Whereas Clarke is also represented by Cortège, which Callaghan plays finely. It’s an impressionistic affair and he judges its crest and fall with distinction. Finally, there’s an attractive, straightforward Bach arrangement by Clarke written in the mid-50s.

The interleaving relationship between the two composers from 1927 to 1937 adds some biographical context to this recital. Clarke’s piano music isn’t very well known, and Busch’s should be far better known than it is, even though it can be jagged and a touch forbidding in places.
With fine notes and a well-judged recital acoustic, Callaghan brings his accustomed stylistic acumen to both composers’ works.

Jonathan Woolf

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