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Bernard STEVENS (1916 - 1983)
The Shadow of the Glen Op. 50 (1978/9)
The True Dark Op.49 (1974) (2)
Della Jones (Nora), mezzo-soprano
John Gibbs (Dan), baritone
Paul Hudson (Tramp), bass
Neil Mackie (Michael), tenor
Divertimenti Orchestra/Howard Williams
Richard Jackson, baritone (2)
Igor Kennaway, piano (2)
rec 1983, BBC studio
ALBANY TROY 418 [62:52]
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Bernard Stevens' song cycle The True Dark Op.49, completed in 1974, sets words by Randall Swingler whose verse has also been set, among others, by Britten, Rawsthorne and Alan Bush. In the last 18 months of his life Swingler worked on a long poem 'The Map' dedicated to Isabel Lambert. 'The Map' is laid-out in three sections: 'The Map', 'Landscapes of the Mind' and 'The True Dark', the latter being made of nine short poems. Bernard Stevens set all nine poems and added, as a coda, Swingler's similarly titled poem from the trilogy's first part. Swingler said that The True Dark was in the form of a passacaglia, to which Stevens did not entirely adhere though his song cycle is clearly conceived as a whole. However, each song is neatly characterised, while some recurrent material enhances the overall coherence of the cycle. The ninth song, recalling some earlier material, brings the cycle to full circle. Still, Stevens adds a coda of his own reworking of some material from the eighth song into a "passionate final apotheosis". The True Dark Op.49 is a very fine song cycle, too rarely heard, that definitely deserves to be better known. Richard Jackson and Igor Kennaway have the full measure of the work and give a highly convincing reading.

Stevens' one-acter The Shadow of the Glen Op.50 to Synge's words was completed in 1979. It was seemingly written from a strong inner impulse, without commission or any concrete plan for a production. Stevens fashioned his own libretto after Synge's one-act play, in much the same way as Vaughan Williams did when composing his Riders to the Sea. Whereas Vaughan Williams set the play almost verbatim, Stevens pruned some of the dialogue so as to focus on essentials. Whereas Riders to the Sea is a tragedy, The Shadow of the Glen is a comedy that also touches on more serious themes: forced, loveless marriage; the passing of time: the desolate life in remote parts of Ireland. Stevens' score vividly responds to every facet of the play and the music has humour as well as seriousness. The very beginning is quite serious. The Tramp realises that there is a dead man in the room and sympathises with the widow. But no sooner has Nora left the cottage than the mood changes dramatically: the dead man is not dead! He actually feigned death to test his wife's fidelity. When Nora returns, and with Dan pretending to be dead, she tells the Tramp of her lonely, sad life with an old, rude and brutal man. Michael, a young shepherd, offers Nora the opportunity to leave the cottage and to go with him. The dead man wakes again! He orders Nora to leave. There ensues some argument and finally the Tramp invites Nora to follow him. After Nora and the Tramp have left, Dan and Michael sit down together and have a drink.

Stevens' score is remarkably inventive throughout and works wonders with a deliberately limited material. In fact, much of the music derives from the Dies Irae, and out of this Stevens creates a score "full of incident, humour, satire and tenderness, wide in expressive range" (Chris de Souza).

This recording, made in 1983 by the BBC, is really very fine, the four singers are all excellent (vocally and dramatically) and are given wholehearted support from Divertimenti conducted by Howard Williams. The overall sound, though at times showing its age, is still very satisfying.

This is a most welcome release and a worthwhile addition to Stevens' slowly expanding discography. This is also a deserved tribute to a distinguished composer whose music is never indifferent. Recommended.

Hubert Culot

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