The music of Alan Bush (1900-1995) has not gained as much attention as the music of several of his contemporaries, despites its undeniable top quality and level of inventiveness. Partially, that may be due to his political activity and attitudes (which permeates large parts of his output), but one the evidence of the two symphonies presented here and other works I've heard, I'd say its probably just as much due to the fact that it doesn't give up its goods very easily - the music is a tad forbidding and austere, difficult, even, but always growing in stature on repeated listening.
Both works here do indeed have a political subtext - the first, for instance, has its different movements represent a journey from aspiration, through greed and frustration to liberation. Stylistically, the music is very much of its time (1940), displaying influences from (or points of connection to) e.g. Walton, Shostakovich and the Americans of the Boulanger generation, also incorporating twelve-tone elements. The first movement, Aspiration, is quite expressive and expressionist, moving to the resolute and craggy Greed-movement. Frustration is rather claustrophobic, though somewhat reflective, whereas the final movement, Liberation, is more determinately and teeth-clenchingly optimistic (think Shostakovich) than actually joyous. It is a splendid work, in fact, but not by any means an easily enjoyable one.
The second symphony, the Nottinham Symphony, was written partially as a sympathetic response to the Zhdanov decree, and is as such less experimental than its predecessor, using for instance folk-inflected themes. It is still not an easy listen, however, although a very rewarding one. The first movement, titled Sherwood Forest, is a strangely atmospheric movement, somewhat redolent of Britten and even Holst. The Second, Clifton Grove, is a lyrical, expansive Largo and the third, Castle Rock, busy, rhythmically spirited and intelligently constructed. The finale, Goose Fair is a superb, tautly written movement with folk-music reminiscences in the vein of the later Vaughan Williams symphonies. Overall, the Nottingham symphony is a major work, but - despite superficially accessible melodies and twists - one that it takes some work on the part of the listener really to appreciate, but which is certainly very much worth the effort. I would certainly also like to hear Bush's other two symphonies.
The performances are good, but not always completely ideal. The playing is committed and spirited and very well directed by Douglas Bostock, in particular in the swagger and optimism of the second symphony. But the orchestra is a Music College Orchestra, and it does show, at times. They are certainly unfazed by the technical challenges, and offer playing of genuine artistry, to be certain, but at times the strings are somewhat thin and the music sounds like it needs more weight. Still, this is a strongly recommended release to anyone with an interest in the music of the period, and neither the sometimes lack of opulence in the orchestra, nor the slightly dry but generally clear and well balanced sound, are even close to changing that.