In June 1986, Peter Jacobs published an article in the British Music Society Newsletter
. Peter Jacobs has been associated with Alan Bush for many years and has performed and recorded much of his piano music. In this article, he wrote about his experiences in recording the Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 84
, Nocturne for Piano, Op. 46
, Corentyne Kwe-Kwe - Toccata, Op. 76
and Letter Galliard, Op. 80
, for the Altarus label. This record was recently re-issued as a CD, Alan Bush - Piano Music (1984) (Altarus, Catalogue No. AIR-CD-9004)
Listen to selected tracks here
by Peter Jacobs
My first meeting with Alan Bush was at the Café Royal in 1982. This was at the lunch given each year by the Associated Board for its Examiners and Representatives. We were placed side by side, a perceptive move on someone's part, as the consequences of this occasion were to prove rich both musically and personally.
Thirty-six hours later a copy of Alan's 24 Preludes arrived in the post, the envelope addressed in his characterful hand, and fastened with red sealing wax. I wasted no time in learning them - I had little else to do for a few weeks - and the beauty and intellectual rigour of the music appealed greatly. I knew I was studying a very fine work, and only recently completed, and up until then only played by the composer.
When I had more-or-less come to grips with the notes, I arranged to play to Alan, who welcomed me with warmth and old-fashioned courtesy. I had not arrived at Radlett in the calmest frame of mind as my car suffered a puncture on the way, and I felt as if my wrist muscles would never recover in time! Anyone who has visited Alan will have experienced the relaxed and gentle atmosphere of the house in Christchurch Crescent, with the attentions of both himself and Nancy.
The exertions of wheel changing were soon eased, and once we began work on the Preludes nothing else mattered. Alan was endlessly patient and polite over my frequent misunderstandings and failings, and was ready to illustrate just what he wanted with his own marvellous playing. Age has not weakened the strength of his fingers or his ear, and I deeply envy his command of piano tone. He never makes his music sound thin or uncommitted, but always strong and positive. The music is the man. He is insistent that one plays his music at exactly the speed he wants, and dynamics must be scrupulously observed. After a gruelling two-hour session, he offered me both a carrot and a stick: "Well, dear boy, you play my Preludes very well...not quite as I would, but...very well." Those familiar with Alan's way of expressing himself will hear the inflexion in his voice, see the smile, and be well aware that one must aim to do a lot better.
The playing over, Nancy appeared with a marvellous array of cakes and refreshments. I imagine this is what it must have been like to have had tea with Sir Edward and Lady Elgar, quiet and civilised, disdaining show and fame, modest and understated in both manner and achievement.
After tea Alan was very keen that I should hear records of his music, most of which are now, alas, out of the catalogue. He was very pleased to hear that I possessed a copy of his "Voices of the Prophets" (the old Argo performance) with Alan accompanying Peter Pears. Accompaniment is the wrong word for such a difficult and massive piano part. Alan played a tape of the Preludes in his own BBC recording and the confidence and breadth of that performance made a deep impression.
I made two further visits to Radlett in preparation for a public performance of the Preludes at Bracknell, to which Alan came, and the subsequent recording. This includes three other pieces, the luminous 'Nocturne' (a treasure-house of Bushian harmony), the ingenious 'Letter Galliard' and the 'Corentyne Kwe-Kwe' - all rhythm and pent-up excitement. Alan came to all the recording sessions. Seated by my side, his vocal admonitions and encouragements were very inspiring, but unfortunately often occurred during actual 'takes'. I thought it would be exciting to leave the composer's voice on record, but wiser and more cautious heads prevailed and Alan had to be content to convey his intentions with face and hands.
I hope this record will go a little way towards showing what a very fine composer we have in Alan Bush. There is little enough British piano music of such integrity and beauty that we can afford to ignore these pieces. Alan Bush was recently 85 years old. A fine celebratory concert was given in his honour at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This included the 'Dialectic for String Quartet' and surely one of the best British works for this medium. Even more impressive was the new Piano Quintet, the product of an octogenarian, amazingly inventive and beautiful, and a tremendous demonstration of this master composer's sense of musical logic and fertility, and one to whom it is our duty to pay far worthier tribute.
© 2001 Peter Jacobs