Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
To all a future world may hold - song-cycles by Alan Bush
Woman's Life - song-cycle (soprano and piano) Op. 87 (1977) [15:00]
Four Seafarers' Songs (baritone and piano) Op. 57 (1961) [11:00]
Life's Span - song-cycle (mezzo and piano) Op. 79 (1973) [18:00]
Voices of the Prophets - cantata (tenor and piano) Op. 41 (1953) [17:00]
The Artsong Collective (Richard Black (piano), Wills Morgan (tenor), Paul Wilson (baritone), Phillida Bannister (mezzo), Moira Harris (soprano))
rec. St Martin's, East Woodhay, Hampshire, Dec 1999, Feb 2000
Half the total output of songs written by Alan Bush feature here
on this third disc to come from The Artsong Collective (a name of which this
fervent communist would surely have heartily approved). Indeed it was the
group's intention to celebrate Bush's 95th birthday but the event
regrettably became a concert in memoriam. Like Tippett after him, Bush was
not only concerned for his fellow man, but also for their musical education
and experience, the Workers' Music Association (over which he presided for
nearly half a century) a useful vehicle for his choral output between the
wars. He was, despite frequent periods of ostracism brought upon him by his
political convictions (all his operas have been staged in East Germany, none
professionally in the UK), an intensely humane and selfless man, and above
all a highly respected teacher for over half a century at the Royal Academy
of Music in London (and he was also no mean pianist).
Four song cycles, one for each voice and written between 1953 and 1977, feature
here. The first is a brief one called 'Woman's Life' to words by his wife
Nancy, and is virtually a protest song sung here with keen fervour by the
(sometimes hard-edged sounding) soprano Moira Harris. In the second, a group
of four traditional Seafarers' Songs, the ex-tenor now baritone Paul Wilson
is occasionally fully stretched but always in character and stylish in these
wittily charming songs. Harris and Wilson fared better in the Hampshire church
of East Woodhay, where this was recorded, than the revelatory Phillida Bannister.
She has a lovely creamy mezzo (the vibrato fast with a hint of Ferrier in
the sound) which needed more forward balance, but nevertheless this is a
really impressive voice which does full justice to the intense beauty of
the four songs in the third cycle 'Life's span' to texts by either Nancy
Bush or C Day Lewis. The final cycle, 'Voice for Prophets' written for Pears
in 1953, is delivered with impeccable diction by the tenor Wills Morgan,
while accompanying all four singers is the meticulously stylish Richard Black,
whose clarity of articulation and technical facility throughout is admirable.
For those unacquainted with the music of the neglected Alan Bush this is
an excellent introduction and a commendable tribute to the work of The Artsong
and another perspective - by Rob Barnett
This disc was first issued almost two decades ago in 2000. Its content consists of four song-cycles each comprising four songs. They were written between 1953 and 1977. We are told that The Artsong Collective have been admirers of Alan Bush's music since they first performed it in 1995, the year of the composer's death. Only one of the four song-cycles (Prophets) has previously been recorded (now on Testament). This disc is the first commercial recording devoted exclusively to Alan Bush's vocal compositions. The timings above are approximate; exact timings are not given in the booklet or disc-case. All the sung words are given in a very legible font and with proper black-on-white contrast in the 16 page booklet. This also, as usual, profiles the artists and the composer. Two of the cycles set words by Alan Bush's wife, Nancy Bush, the sister of the composer Michael Head. This was by no means their only collaboration on music projects.
In the four songs of Woman's Life the vividly operatic voice lends drama, storm-clouds and some delight to Nancy Bush's poems. Tempest is never far away in this cycle which I can easily imagine having an orchestral part. The songs range from the hectic Factory Day, recounting a day in the factory. It does this with simple muscularity and functions almost as social history. The piano hammers out the ceaseless dead rhythm of the machinery. Its predecessor song also has a recurrent rhythmic pattern - but rich rather than rigid. This time it is of the treadle of the sewing machine. The first song, Prologue, speaks of a world of men and of woman's role as a mother. All this is set in a restless teeming world. Prologue begins in Bush's accustomed declamatory tone (heard again in the Prophets cycle) but inward yet hopeful. It ends with a line which is also the title of the disc. The piano parts of these songs track Bush's swirling and glinting sense of fresh and aspiring beginnings. That aspirant sense is there in Epilogue which leads the listener from the end of the working day to the mother's utopian hopes for the end of war and time "to live, to laugh, to work together". Woman's life was commissioned by the Woking Music Club and premiered by Sylvia Eaves (soprano) and Alan Bush (piano) at Central Hall, Woking, Surrey on 12 February 1978.
Four Seafarers' Songs has texts from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Bush's choice of words avoids the obvious and notably the songs each tell a story. The Ship in Distress is tempestuous and forms a prelude for the quick-pulsed and rhythmic Ratcliffe Highway. The order of the day for Richard Black's piano is marcato and martellato. The Greenland Fishery recounts a fatal whaling story while the final song Jack the Jolly Tar vigorously lead the listener through a Canterbury-Tales-style adventure with a lady. Bush deploys a wider range of dynamic to recount the jolly story. The four songs were first performed by Philip Lewtas (baritone) and Alan Bush (piano) at Morley College, London on 19 November 1961. It was published by Galliard in 1964.
Lifespan sets pairs of poems by Nancy Bush and Cecil Day-Lewis. A Child Asleep (Bush) is the first really quiet and slow song as befits its subject. The piano part - always vital to these song and never mere accompaniment - is starry and its rhythmic path is in constant mercurial change. Learning to Talk (Lewis) reflects, in facts and philosophy, on the child's first words. It ends with the frisson of recall of the cycle of death and new life: "When we go down, they will be tall ones". The Long Noonday (Bush), unusually for this composer, is a contented love poem and the music follows the mood; nothing of declamation here. Beauty's End is in Sight (Lewis) movingly catches the chill of the onset of old age - "Wings that flew lightly / Fold and are iron. / We see the thin end of mortality". The song ends in peace. We should remember that Lewis was Poet Laureate (1968-72) and that this cycle dates from the year after Lewis's death. The premiere was given by Katinka Seiner (mezzo) and Alan Bush (piano) at Shenstone New College, Bromsgrove on 2 April 1973.
Voices of the Prophets carries a dedication: "To Peter Pears and Noel Mewton-Wood" who gave the premiere at the Recital Room, Royal Festival Hall, London on 22 May 1953. It was commissioned by Pears. The cycle has achieved something approaching popularity due to Pears' advocacy (a marmite voice if ever there was one) and it was Pears who recorded it for Argo. It�s the oldest cycle here. From the 65th Chapter of Isaiah is a eager declamation with a hope-imbued piano part to match the Biblical words' utopian imagery: "They shall not build and another inhabit". One recalls that John Ireland and Alan Bush were friends and that Ireland's These Things Shall Be is preoccupied with similar Millenarian imagery. The images that these songs conjure up are of the Clydeside paintings of Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). From the Oration "Against the Scholastic Philosophy" has a long piano solo prelude crowded with lively Bachian action. It's in much the same mood as Finzi's Grand Fantasia and Toccata. Only at 1:20 does the voice enter with Milton's words hymning ecstatically the "Spirit of Man". From Selections from Milton is the last of three songs which set tracts of prose. The warlike tone for the first time on this disc exhorts and glories in the struggle against "ignorant hirelings!". The last song takes a poem "My Song is for All Men" by Peter Blackman (1909-93), the black left-wing activist, anti-colonial campaigner and broadcaster. This poem rapturously surveys the struggle of the world's working people from Sheffield to Antwerp, Yangtse to Sahara, Kamchatka to Japan "till man cover the earth with his glory as the waters cover the sea". There is much in the words of this cycle which may prompt a knowing cynicism but do hold it in check if you are to enjoy such ripely imagined and executed music.
Bush enthusiasts and those pondering enthusiasm should hear this disc and at the same time have a look at the rare collection of concert programmes here.