Piano Concerto; Oboe Concerto, Toccata Festiva.
Stewart Young (piano),
Laszlo Bohr (oboe), Deanna Blacher (castanets) Cape Town SO/I Musicanti/Allan
1563 See following note re availability.
We should be constantly grateful for the enterprise and diligence of the
smaller record companies who promote the music of those composers who do
not enjoy a high critical profile. The inevitable question is always 'Is
their enterprise worthwhile?' The answer, as far as Claremont Records and
the music of Allan Stephenson is concerned, must be an emphatic Yes!
Mr. Stephenson is English-born and studied at the Royal Manchester College
of Music, but has lived in South Africa since 1973, working as 'cellist,
conductor and composer. Claremont GSE have recorded a number of his works,
mainly from the concerti which he has written specifically for friends and
He maintains the rather unfashionable view that the essentials of all good
music are melody, harmony and rhythm, qualities evident in the works on this
disc. However, his music is often powerfully structured and always has a
sense of movement and purpose. For all its immediately attractive surface
his is not superficial or "wallpaper" music. The listener will undoubtedly
catch echoes of other composers in these pieces, but if Mr. Stephenson has,
like all worthwhile artists, learned from his predecessors he has also developed
a personal and recognizable voice of his own.
The Piano Concerto is a big work, big not so much in duration (around half
an hour) as in content. A dramatic call to attention from drum and orchestra,
a short and massive cadenza from the soloist, and the work launches straight
into a powerful and memorable first subject. There is almost no transition
before piano and strings then sing a passionately romantic second theme.
There is neither padding nor meandering in this concerto, even in the brief
moments of relaxation. The music moves on with direct purpose from first
bar to last. Even the cadenza-like solo near the end of the movement, in
which the romantic theme is expanded and discussed, has a sense of momentum
The second movement is a Poco Adagio with a scherzando middle section. In
his notes the dedicatee and performer in this recording of the Concerto,
Stewart Young, writes of elements of popular music that resemble film music.
But the only passage that to me remotely recalls the silver screen comes
at the beginning of this movement; and perhaps that is only because the films
have borrowed so extensively from the language of the big romantic concerto.
The gossamer delicacy of the Scherzando middle section is most effectively
thrown into relief by the beautifully-scored reprise of the Adagio. And then
all dreams are swept aside as the finale bursts upon us with something of
the urgent mood of the first movement. Thrilling brass and percussion edged
by a telling contribution from the xylophone help the piano to keep the momentum
going towards a barnstorming peroration which must "bring the house down"
in a live performance - of which this splendid piece deserves many.
Stewart Young rises to the challenge of what sounds like a very demanding
solo part (I have not seen a score of any of this music) with whole-hearted
commitment and a mercurial response to the swiftly-changing moods and textures
of the score. We can assume that with the composer at the helm the performance
is completely idiomatic. A couple of places of less-than-ideal balance between
soloist and orchestra can probably be attributed to the circumstances of
a live concert-hall performance.
For all its excellences, a romantic piano concerto must compete for attention
in a crowded market-place. There are no such constraints on accepting an
oboe concerto into a much more limited repertoire, and any oboist ought to
be glad of an addition such as Mr. Stephenson's piece. Any oboist, that is,
with the formidable technique necessary to cope with its difficulties. But
they are the difficulties proper to the instrument. Allan Stephenson never
asks his soloists to torture unnatural sounds from their instruments, and
he has a knack of penetrating to the soul of each one. Any player or listener
who loves the oboe concertos of Strauss and Vaughan Williams will be at home
immediately with this one. (There is a delightful moment in the finale which
is first cousin to The March past of the Kitchen Utensils.)
The first movement is a somewhat unconventional sonata-form, lavish with
tunes and containing a conventional cadenza, though it appears rather
unexpectedly. Mr. Stephenson has the rare gift of writing songful slow movements
which go straight to the heart, and this concerto is graced with one such:
an aria in the rhythm of a slow siciliano in which the oboe decorates a melody
which haunts the memory for days after a hearing. The finale is both substantial
and light-heartedly tuneful, with a formally satisfying reference back to
the first movement and incorporating another demanding cadenza.
The soloist and dedicatee, Laszlo Bohr, treats the difficulties of his part
as if they were of no account, though I wish the recording were a little
kinder to his tone, especially in the lovely lines of the slow movement.
In the same way, the lack of bloom on the strings of I Musicanti must, I
think, be laid on the recording rather than in any deficiency on the part
of the supple and responsive players.
The Toccata Festiva is something of a jeu d'esprit. Works for solo castanets
and orchestra must be fairly thin on the ground. This one was written for
Deanna Blacher, who gives us the works: zapateado foot-stamping and
(just-audible) skirt-swishing as well as the gypsy eloquence of the castanets.
The Toccata, of course, pays homage to the Spanish tradition, and gives us
brief, tongue-in-cheek nods in the directions of Glinka's and Lalo's "Spanish"
pieces. It also gives us another lovely typical melody as contrast to all
the high spirits; a generous gesture from a composer so melodically fertile
that he can lavish such tunes on a work that will inevitably have very few
outings. The Toccata is very superior light music; and the Spanish accent
is rather better than skin-deep. I live in Spain and a Spanish friend who
has heard the piece pronounced on it as being 'muy autentico'.
The works on the present disc are not newly recorded; they have previously
been available (though not for some time) on vinyl. The recording of the
Piano Concerto dates from 1981, the Toccata from 1982 and the Oboe Concerto
from 1984. The older recordings have lasted better than that of the Oboe
Concerto. The latter has a fairly high level of background hiss, and the
strings and oboe have harsh edges to their voices. But this should not deter
prospective listeners. The digitally remastered recording of the remaining
items is perfectly satisfactory without being spectacular, and we should
be only too grateful for the opportunity to get to know some attractive and
very worthwhile music.
It is greatly to be hoped that other soloists and orchestras will take up
Allan Stephenson's music and also that Claremont will be encouraged to give
us the symphonies.
R James Tayler
AVAILABILITY TO MEMBERS OF BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY: - CLAREMONT RECORDS
Apart from the above CDs, Stephenson's music also appears on
GSE 1504 Clarinet Concerto (John Simon - Threnody for clarinet &
orchestra Priaulx Rainier - Suite for clarinet & piano);
GSE 1556 Concerto for trombone & strings (with John Simon (Zimbabwe)
- Violin Concerto/Arnold van Wyk - Saudade for violin & orchestra
Other CDs include 1509 Van Wyk - Symphonies 1 2/Primavera; 1525 Van Wyk -
5 Elegies, String Quartet/Duo Concertante for viola & piano; 1538 Hubert
du Plessis - Malay Scenes/Symphony; 1546 Stefans Grove - Afrika Hymnus/Songs
& Dances from Africa and Nonyana for piano/Viola Sonata; 1526 Thomas
Rajna - Piano Concerto No.2/Harp Concerto; 1565 Du Plessis & Grove -
String Quartets and many other issues plus their historical series of great
artists and performances; of more classical repertoire.
Any of these may be ordered through the Hon. Treasurer of the British Music
S C, TROWELL, 7 Tudor Gardens UPMINSTER, ESSEX RM14 3DE, 01708 224795 at
a special airmail inclusive price of £11 per CD. Goods
will be despatched direct from South Africa and BMS members are responsible
for paying any import duty etc. due on receipt (often not collected). Complete
catalogue available from the Hon Treasurer who will try to answer any