Wednesday 24 August 2022

The songs of William Busch: revealing the quietly distinctive voice of an underexplored composer

The Songs of William Busch with songs by Elizabeth Poston, Gerald Finzi and Michael Head; Diana Moore, Roderick Williams, Robin Tritschler, John Reid; LYRITA
The Songs of William Busch with songs by Elizabeth Poston, Gerald Finzi and Michael Head; Diana Moore, Roderick Williams, Robin Tritschler, John Reid; LYRITA
Reviewed 23 August 2022 (★★★★)

The gentle but distinctive voice of composer William Busch comes over strongly in this lovely recital that sets his songs against those of his contemporaries

The composer William Busch studied with John Ireland and was friends with his contemporary Alan Bush. Dying tragically young at the age of 44 in 1945, his rather compact output has remained rather under-explored. This new disc from Lyrita, curated by Busch's daughter Julia, consists of songs by William Busch alongside those of his contemporaries Elizabeth Poston, Gerald Finzi and Michael Head, performed by mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, tenor Robin Tritschler and baritone Roderick Williams, with pianist John Reid.

We hear 21 of William Busch's songs from Slumber Song (probably written in 1931) to The Lowest Trees have Tops written in 1944, with at the disc's centre his wartime cycle There have been happy days written in 1944 and setting poems by the Great War poet Wilfred Gibson and probably Busch's last completed composition.

Busch's life, musical and otherwise, was somewhat more complex than bald statement can imply. Son of German immigrants he took piano lessons as a child and when sent to America in 1915 (presumably because of the war) he studied music there and wanted to train as a concert pianist. He was briefly in Berlin in the 1920s before returning to London. Studies with the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch were somewhat haphazard but the serendipitous meeting with fellow pupil Alan Bush (the theory is that Moiseiwitsch got the two confused) led to a friendship and, ultimately, to Busch studying with Bush though they were of an age. Busch also studied with John Ireland (Bush's teacher), but the need to earn a living meant he concentrated at first on piano playing. This means that his output dates from a scant dozen years or so. His interest in song dates from the mid-1930s, much encouraged by Sheila his future wife, as the two would choose poems for setting together. 

His Piano Concerto was premiered in 1939, and he was working on his Cello Concerto during the war when he was a conscientious objector. The war years proved to be his most productive, the Cello Concerto was premiered at a Prom, and there were numerous other works including a group of songs.

William Busch (Photo credit Julia Busch)
William Busch (Photo credit Julia Busch)
His end was tragic and haphazard. In January 1945 his second child, daughter Julia (who curated the disc) was born and he visited mother and daughter at the nursing home in Ilfracombe. A blizzard meant that roads were closed, so he walked home to Woolacombe via the cliff path. Although he managed to get home, he suffered hypothermia and internal bleeding, and because no doctor or ambulance could reach the house, he died.

At no point does the disc explain the raison d'etre for the selection of other composers or the songs (and it might perhaps have been interesting to hear songs by Alan Bush and by John Ireland), so we must simply listen to the disc as a recital and enjoy. Though Busch's chamber music and concertos feature in the catalogue, there is not much in the way of the song repertoire and evidently this disc is the result of research and reconstruction by Julia Busch and Diana Moore as a significant number of the songs were unpublished. In fact, though the 1940s were productive musically for Busch, because of his German heritage interest in his music was at a low.

The songs are performed in roughly date order, and interleaved by songs by his contemporaries so that we first hear Finzi's As I lay in the early sun (1921), Poston's Sweet Sussex Owl (1925) and Finzi's Only the Wanderer (1925) before a group of Busch's songs from the 1930s.  These are are lovely pastoral English songs, from Roderick Williams and Diana Moore, setting the scene for Busch.

His first song, Slumber Song is rather haunting and not obvious, and this applies to the next two, Harvest Moon and Sweet Content. This latter has hints of European influence in the piano part, certainly not content to be gently pastoral.

More obviously English songs by Head and Finzi follow before we return to Busch. His charming Fairies is certainly not obvious, whilst Rest seems to incline more to the English style of the other composers on the disc, except the piano moves into more complex territory, suggesting perhaps Ireland or further afield. We move to Finzi and Head, contrasting the rather dark atmosphere of the first with Head's strikingly unaccompanied folk-ish song. 

With Busch's The Centaurs we move to 1942, and Busch's mature period, full of complexity in the piano and a vivid evocation of the story. Busch's Keats setting Ode to Autumn (which dates from 1937) is more pastoral, but is a complex, extended work lasting over six minutes, and Busch's flexible vocal writing allows plenty of space for the wordy poem. Weep You No More (1935) seems to have a neo-Baroque feel to some of its piano writing, complementing the finely poised vocal line. Echoing Green (1943) has folk influences, but vividly descriptive piano writing too and a brilliance to the vocal writing. The Shepherd is less showy but no less striking, whilst The Bellman starts with a suitably dramatic piano introduction leading to a starkly dramatic song. L'Oiseau Bleu sets the poem familiar from Stanford's part-song The Bluebird, here rendered with a lovely translucence.

We seem to move into a different world in There Have Been Happy Days, one that is hinted at by earlier songs. A world that has complex, European-inspired perhaps, piano writing, a flexibility in the vocal line and a stark intensity of delivery that matches the subject matter. The Soldier includes a marching effect in the piano, but never becomes descriptive, in fact the piano seems almost threatening. Even the semi-pastoral The Goldfinches is stark and intense, whilst The Kitbag is heart-wrenchingly simple and powerful. The final song of the cycle, The Promise, holds out more promise but still with that stark intensity of the rest of the cycle. None of the five songs is exactly long, and yet each packs quite a punch and the whole cycle is rather powerful.

The final Busch songs are also late ones, The Lowest Trees have Tops again has Busch's familiar complex piano writing, certainly avoiding any hint of pastoral simplicity. If Thou Wilt Ease Thine Heart is lyrical yet bleak, elegant yet starkly moving.  The Snowdrip in the Wind is a striking mix of melodic lyricism and haunting, eerie harmonies. 

We have a Finzi and a Poston song next, the one secure post-dating Busch's death, the other less certain. The final Busch song is Come, O Come My Life's Delight is a prime example of his mature style, there is a pastoral lyricism about it but it never quite gels that way; the harmony and the interaction between voice and piano move the song into something more intriguing.

We end with Head and Poston, more delight and then Poston returning to a poem after a gap of nearly 60 years.

The performances are uniformly excellent, as you would expect from this line-up. Pianist John Reid is Diana Moore's regular partner. Here he and the three singers really bring out the gently effective and quietly distinct voice of Busch's music. The disc might have been a labour of love, but it is an intensely worthwhile one, revealing many gems and I hope it spurs singers to include the songs in their recitals.

GERALD FINZI (1901-1956) - As I lay in the early sun (1921) [Roderick Williams]
ELISABETH POSTON (1905-1987) - Sweet Suffolk Owl (1925) [Diana Moore]
GERALD FINZI - Only the wanderer (1925) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Slumber Song (1931?) [Robin Tritschler]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Harvest Moon [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Sweet Content (1933) [Diana Moore]
MICHAEL HEAD (1900-1976) - Why Have You Stolen My Delight? (1933) [Robin Tritschler]
GERALD FINZI - Oh fair to see (1929) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Fairies (1934) [Diana Moore]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Rest (1933) [Diana Moore]
GERALD FINZI - To Joy (1931) [Roderick Williams]
MICHAEL HEAD - The Singer (1939) [Robin Tritschler]
WILLIAM BUSCH - The Centaurs (1942) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Ode to Autumn (1937) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Weep You no More (1935) [Diana Moore]
WILLIAM BUSCH - The Echoing Green (1943) [Robin Tritschler]
WILLIAM BUSCH - The Shepherd (1943) [Robin Tritschler]
WILLIAM BUSCH - The Bellman (1944) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - L’Oiseau Bleu (1944) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - There Have Been Happy Days (1944) [Diana Moore]
WILLIAM BUSCH - The Lowest Trees have Tops (1944) [Roderick Williams]
WILLIAM BUSCH - If Thou Wilt Ease Thine Heart (1943) [Robin Tritschler]
WILLIAM BUSCH - The Snowdrop in the Wind (1943) [Robin Tritschler]
GERALD FINZI - Harvest (1956) [Roderick Williams]
ELIZABETH POSTON - The Snowdrop in the Wind [Diana Moore]
WILLIAM BUSCH - Come, O Come My Life’s Delight (1943) [Robin Tritschler]
MICHAEL HEAD - Dear Delight (c.1965) [Robin Tritschler]
ELIZABETH POSTON - Sweet Suffolk Owl (1983) [Diana Moore]
Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano)
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
John Reid (piano)
Recorded at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 21-23 June 2021
Lyrita SRCD409 1CD [73:33]

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