Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fantasia on Soviet Themes
Martin Yates, cond;
Peter Donohoe (pn); Royal Scottish Natl O
DUTTON 7306 (72:56)
According to excerpts from composer Alan Bush’s own writings, as
astutely quoted by annotator Lewis Foreman, the question of nationalism became an issue for the left-leaning composer for seemingly the first time when the nefarious Zhdanov Doctrine was promulgated in the Soviet Union after the end of World War II. Prior to the mid-1940s the German-trained Bush had hewed to a relatively independent course of mostly absolute music typified by the granitic First Symphony of 1940, the large-scale piano concerto of the late 1930s, and the notable
for string quartet. It was during the post-war years that Bush began to lean toward more self-consciously Anglican subjects such as the
for Strings and the orchestral piece
Piers Plowman’s Day.
(his Symphony No. 2) of 1949 is probably the most conspicuous outgrowth of this trend which culminated in his revolutionary opera
Commissioned by the city of Nottingham to mark the 500th anniversary of its founding, all four of the Second Symphony’s movements bear locally designated subtitles such as the “Sherwood Forest” first movement. Written in a more congenial and listener-friendly idiom than some of his earlier more challenging scores, this work is as close as Bush ever came to a nationalistic avatar in orchestral terms. It is laden with good tunes of a populist spirit and occasionally weighted with Delian echoes, though very little of the Vaughan Williams brand of modality. In his own program notes, the slow movement is described by Bush as a “sustained, richly harmonized passage on the whole body of strings, quietly sonorous, slow moving with gentle surges and small ripples on the horns and woodwind, [which] suggest the broad, peaceful flow of the River Trent at Clifton Grove.” The festive finale is dominated by an energizingly triumphant march which, once heard, will never be forgotten.
This is the Nottingham’s third recording: In addition to a very rare archival version conducted in Russia by the composer during a government-sponsored 1950s visit of several English composers, several years ago the Danish label Classico released a performance by an English regional orchestra under the baton of the tireless Douglas Bostock (which also included the first recording of the great First Symphony). Although the Bostock is a fully adequate interpretation, this Martin Yates recording is marginally superior, both sonically and interpretively, though this writer regrets that, in addition to
—see below—two other piano-and-orchestra works by Bush were not also considered: the monumental piano concerto—with a Busonian choral finale—and the
Variations, Nocturne, and Finale
, whose premiere vinyl recording on the Pye Golden Guinea label is long gone.
For collectors, however, the primary interest of this release resides in the first recording of a later work—
—a symphonic movement for piano and orchestra of 1972. This very dramatic and colorful score is a kind of sinfonia concertante in three continuous sections based on an amalgam of African and non-African themes, none of them actual quotations. Not in the least generic or ethnographic in nature, the music illustrates a metaphoric tug-of-war between native and imperialistic impulses which no doubt had political overtones for the composer but can be experienced by the listener on an otherwise purely musical plane.
contains some of Bush’s most densely dissonant writing and in general leaves a dark and indignant residue. Undoubtedly it is a major and deeply felt statement.
The program closes with a somewhat clunky
Fantasia on Soviet Themes
from the early 1940s which could be viewed as an embarrassment but more charitably as a heartfelt tribute to a World War II ally.
Performance and production values maintain the same high standards established over recent years by the superlative Dutton Epoch series. And the opportunity to hear
makes this a necessary acquisition all those interested in the achievements of a great 20th century English composer.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Works on This Recording
Fantasia on Soviet Themes, op. 24 by Alan Bush
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1940s ; England
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