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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Bernard STEVENS (1916-1983)
Chamber Music

Piano Trio Op. 3 (1942) [16.17]
Violin Sonata (in one movement) Op. 1 (1940) [11.04]
Horn Trio Op. 38 (1966) [16.09]
Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland Op. 23 (1953) [13.44]
Improvisation for solo violin Op. 48a [9.53]
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble: Kenneth Sillito (violin); Stephen Orton (cello); Hamish Milne (piano); Timothy Brown (horn)
rec. Champs Hill, West Sussex, March 2002, DDD
ALBANY TROY572 [67.56]


Bernard Stevens' representation on CD continues to unfold slowly but with satisfying thoroughness driven by his widow's indomitable commitment and the intrinsic worth of the music. The two concertos (violin, cello) and the two symphonies (No. 1 , Liberation and No. 2) are on a pair of Meridian CDs (CDE84174, CDE84124). The Piano Concerto is on Marco Polo. Albany is the home of CDs of the extraordinarily powerful two String Quartets (TROY455), the opera The Shadow of the Glen (TROY418) as well as the present disc.

Stevens’ music suffered the eclipse that was the fate of a tonal composer reaching maturity in the 1940s and 1950s. In the broadest sense he can be treated as a 'Cheltenham man’ along with such diverse characters as Butterworth, Alwyn, Veale and Gardner at one melodic extreme and Frankel, Fricker (now there’s a man who deserves a CPO intégrale!) and Searle at the atonal other with Rawsthorne somewhere in between.

The Piano Trio's motoric rhythms touch on Bartók and Bloch giving way to an impassioned almost cinematic intensity in the slow movement. A chucklingly avuncular allegro con brio takes time to enjoy the scenery before returning to intimations of East European angst. A startlingly Howells-like passionate cantabile rounds off the work.

The Violin Sonata was written for and dedicated to 'the onlie begetter' of this disc, Bertha Stevens - the composer’s widow. This looks back to the John Ireland Second Sonata and has those confidently hieratic sturdy piano statements we associate with Ireland. It dates from two years before the Piano Trio and lacks the East European-Hungarian tang of that work. The piece ends calmly musing. It was Bertha Stevens' playing of this fine and succinct work that attracted Max Rostal to commission the Violin Concerto.

Unsurprisingly the Horn Trio was written partially as a companion to the Brahms Trio. We are now almost thirty years on from the Violin Sonata and the subtlety of expression has deepened. Stevens uses an obsessive little four-note theme - like a bird-call and deploys this freely amongst the instruments. Its morose course tracks higher and higher until achieving the violin's high F which leads into the second movement (also an adagio). The movement is only 2.14 long. The trio play the four-note motif caringly and give it a mid-European folksy flavour which is picked up in the allegro finale.

The Dowland Fantasia was written ten years after the Piano Trio. It was written for and premiered by Suzanne Rozsa and Paul Hamburger. The theme is Dowland’s galliard Can Shee Excuse. It nicely complements his Fantasia on Farnaby's Dream. The pieces muses reflectively and also dances lightly on its Warlockian toes at 05.01 soon disporting in neo-Bachian finery but moving onwards to the more impassioned writing with which it closes.

The spare Improvisation for solo violin is ingenious, cheeky though perhaps inevitably predominantly serious. It began life as a work for solo viola composed in 1973 for his daughter Catherine. He wrote the present version for Erich Gruenberg. Both versions happily co-exist.

There are plenty of Stevens works awaiting recording. The cantatas have been methodically neglected though they promise well going by a few off-air tapes I have heard. The range is wide: Harvest of Peace (Randall Swingler) for soprano, baritone, narrator, chorus and string orchestra and piano (1952), Pilgrims of Hope (William Morris) for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra (1956), Thanksgiving (Tagore) for SATB chorus and string orchestra (1965), Et Resurrexit (Ecclesiastes and Swingler) for alto, tenor, chorus and orchestra (1969), Hymn to Light (Tagore) for baritone, chorus, orchestra and piano (1971) and The Turning World (Swingler) for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra and piano (1971).

This Stevens collection is most engagingly documented by Malcolm Macdonald who also wrote the chapter on Stevens' chamber music in the Kahn & Averill symposium on 'Stevens and His Music' (1989, ISBN 1-871082-03-X).

Stevens was never a pastoralist but instead focused on traditional forms of absolute music working within the agreeable confines of tonality. He was not at all 'grey'; and there is not a trace of the neo-classical or the avant-garde. He perhaps can be seen as a British echo of the line established by Bloch and Rozsa - more the former than the latter. The Piano Trio and Violin Sonata catch him at his most instantly approachable without being in any way ingratiating. As ever Stevens impresses by his patent sincerity. You take him or you leave him. He wrote as he found ... you cannot ask more of a composer. Long may the Stevens Trust continue their valuable work. This disc, the Albany String Quartets and Meridian Violin Concerto are good places to start exploration of the Stevens legacy.

Rob Barnett

 



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