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Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928 -)
Passacaglia on DSCH

Murray McLachlan (piano)
Recorded at King’s Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 15-16 July 1999
THE DIVINE ART CD 25013 [74.59]

Ronald Stevenson’s monumental Passacaglia, published in 1967 (1) was written in 1960-62 and in fact was still being written on the day of the first performance by the composer (10 December 1963) in South Africa’s Cape Town University, as the composer added the ‘piobearachd’ section, the ink virtually still wet, as he took his seat at the Hiddingh Hall piano! It is hardly surprising that its eighty minute length in performance resulted, in an era of minimalism, in its being regarded then by the unknowing as something of a monster, to be classed with such cerebral works as the Busoni Fantasia Contrapuntistica and Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum. With passing of years (I hate the expression ‘over time’) like Constant Lambert’s ‘red rag’ (2) it has developed an unmistakably pink hue and is accepted, after performances in every continent of the globe (except Antartica!) as a front-line ‘war horse’ (with all the noble connotations thus implied) of 20th century music.

It has been played and recorded by the composer, by the late John Ogdon, Raymond Clarke, Mark Gasser – and on several occasions by Murray McLachlan whose various performances now result in this CD – a fortuitous accolade of ‘Divine Art’. A very real tribute from the composer to the pianist is quoted on the sleeve: "He has no greater appreciator of his pianism than myself". It could be argued that, apart from Ogdon (whose relationship with the composer dated back to their student years at RNCM Manchester) no pianist has grown up with this work in closer proximity than McLachlan. His career has been followed keenly over some thirty years since an early recital in Peebles (which both Ronald and I attended). The Passacaglia (not played on that early occasion) is necessarily something of a war-horse – a work that pianists who are pianists will aspire to tackle. Given the extreme range of virtuosity in this dramatic work ("Into which", says the composer, " I put all that I knew of the piano at that time") tackled with some tenacity over its length by each executant in his own way it must finally be argued that it is a work that, despite the tightly cohered structure of the opening figure (3), allows for individual interpretations (an approach sanctioned by the composer). Thus it seems to me like a leviathan, its multiple sections linked, providing a supple onward progression with the flexibility of vertebrae in a youthful and energetic body.

Having myself grown up with the Passacaglia (played by the composer in his West Linton ‘den of musiquity’) in its earliest fragmentary sketches I seem to hear things therein, things not deliberately contrived, surprising in a contemporary work. But is it surprising? And although contemporary does that mean ‘modern’? Its dissonance is no greater than Bartók - even Bach – and even then only in the clusters of dramatic chords and in the concluding virtuosic variations . There are many many lyrical passages (Andante page 41? and the highly emotive ‘piobearachd’). In fact the whole impulse of the work is melodic. I can hear echoes of Schubert – and of Bax (in the Fandango section). I am convinced that from the early moments of the piece its development (and despite the apparent constrictions of the ever-present motif which the ear accepts but does not really hear, it does develop) parallels Stevenson’s composing career and, as naturally, the development history of Western Music – its growth unaffected by the fashionable ‘isms and ‘alities that passed as modernism in the erratic 20th Century.

It is McLachlan’s belief also that the work itself is capable of varied interpretation – not only interpretations by different executants but varied treatment within each pianist’s own reading of the piece. Here is a committed performance – only slightly quicker than the composer’s own. Stevenson has suggested, having performed the work about twenty times, that, on a scale of one minute to a year, the Passacaglia spans a lifetime, with a physical climax at the mid-span of a man’s three score and ten. If this climax could be considered as around the Alla Marcia (p.57) or immediately before the African drum section, then either seems viable. The work is in this sense, a living organism.

If one has to quibble then I personally find the electronic manipulation (tho’ sanctioned by the composer – a silent crescendo and diminuendo not available in live performance) at ‘quasi chittara’ (p 46) of the harmonics emanating from the silently depressed chord sounding unpleasantly like a ‘miaow’! More puzzling is the curious and inexplicable colour coding on the sleeve, the ‘A’s of Passacaglia looking like some kind of measuring instrument?

Let not such minor and inoffensive detail deter anyone from adding this CD to other recordings – even to other future issues, perhaps even by the same exciting pianist. And the work is an experience, an experience shared by Walton and Alan Bush.

Colin Scott-Sutherland


(1) OUP and now available from the Ronald Stevenson Society, 3 Chamberlain Road, Edinburgh EH10 4DL. price £29.

(2) Music Ho! Constant Lambert, Faber, 1934, p.19

(3) Three variations over seven bars of the opening 4 notes DSCH, with its implied minor overtones, repeated throughout its length (I am told some 645 times!)

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