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Bernard STEVENS (1916-1983)
The complete piano works
Works for solo piano

Fantasia on "Giles Farnaby’s Dreame" op.22 (1953) [12:08]
Five Inventions op.14 (1950) [9:41]
Theme and Variations op.2 (1941) [13:51]
Ballad no.1 op.17 (1953) [8:48]
Ballad no.2 op.42 (1969) [6:22]
Sonata in One Movement op.25 (1954) [15:01]
Works for solo piano, piano (four hands) and two pianos (four hands)

A Birthday Song (1963) [4:41]
Fugato (1936) [1:40]
Invention (1937) [2:06]
Fugue à 3 (1936) [2:18]
Fantasia on "The Irish Ho-Hoane" op.13 (1949) [7:34]
Barcarolle (1952) [1:28]
Haymakers’ Dance (1952) [0:36]
The Mirror (Canon) (1952) [0:47]
Square Dance (1952) [0:37]
Aria (1957) [3:27]
Introduction and Allegro op.29 (1957) [8:09]
Two Dances op.33 (1962) [5:35]
Fuga alla sarabanda (1980) [2:53]
Nocturne on a note-row by Ronald Stevenson op.51 (1980) [4:15]
Elegiac Fugue on the name ‘Geraldine’ (1981) [5:41]
Concertante for Two Pianos op.55 (1982) [11:34]
Florian Uhlig (piano)
Michael Finnissy (piano),
Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul (piano duet)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 25-29 October 2004
2 CDs for price of 1
sponsored by Bernard Stevens trust
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7160 [66:38 + 64:39]

Here is another admirable first from Dutton - a company that specialises in firsts. Nor are they given to cutting corners. Their notes and artistic choices are of the best.

In this case never before have we had such a generous and definitive collection of Bernard Stevens’ piano music.

Stevens's music rose to something approaching prominence in the 1940s and 1950s but suffered grievously because of his communist sympathies. Not as numerically productive as fellow left-winger Alan Bush, Stevens’ orchestral output has been well covered in recordings. Both Meridian and Albany have done well by him no doubt with sponsorship from the composer’s staunchly dedicated widow Bertha Stevens. The two Meridian CDs of the two symphonies and the concertos for violin and cello are well worth tracking down as is the Marco Polo of the piano concerto. The surprisingly lyrical Shadow of the Glen opera is gripping and very emotional. Hear it on Albany. We must hope that his few remaining unrecorded orchestral works will make it to disc alongside his half a dozen plus chamber orchestra cantatas.

There have been previous CDs of Stevens piano music but nothing as ambitious as this Dutton project. It is clear that Florian Uhlig - who previously I had not heard of - is fundamentally engaged in this music. He presides over the first disc.

The Farnaby Fantasia was written for Denis Matthews in 1953. It is not at all precious or twee and avoids the smock gentility of parts of Rubbra's Farnaby Improvisations for orchestra. There is an impetuous storminess in some of this writing which recalls the symphonic Rubbra at one point and Howard Ferguson's piano sonata at another. The piece ends with a return to the atmosphere of the Farnaby original. In 1972 Stevens orchestrated the piece as Introduction, Variations and Fugue on a theme of Giles Farnaby.

The Five Inventions were written in 1950 for James Gibb. They are brevities although two run for 2:55 and 3:42. Brief they may be but none are inconsequential. The Adagio broods in bleakness. The cut-glass gallop of the Presto reminds me of Rawsthorne at his most fleet-fingered.

The Theme and Variations was written for Eiluned Davies who some years ago recorded, on cassette only, much of the solo piano music of Bernard van Dieren. Here it is not van Dieren we think of but Finzi - and we will return to that name. Stevens had several of his works played by Finzi's Newbury String Players so there are biographical links as well. Mild dissonances and a grave manner recall the sobriety of the Farnaby Fantasy although there are fireworks and a skip in the step in the final bars.

There are two Ballades. The First Ballade from 1951 was dedicated to Leonard Cassini who gave the premiere in London in 1953. It will be recalled that Cassini recorded various things for the Revolution LP label circa 1970. The moderato pace of the First Nocturne is clearly typical of Stevens here leavened by a gently undulating song - a distant relative of de Falla - and a devilish jig. The Second Ballade followed eighteen years later having been written for and premiered on the BBC by Ronald Stevenson. Here Stevens taps into a more vigorous vein - less prone to moderato. It is a fantastic piece -and the mood could be compared to a specially grotesque Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau or one of Medtner's Ballades updated.

Who remembers Clive Lythgoe? I hope I am not alone. I recall his two Philips LPs - one of Macdowell and the other that included piano solos by Griffes and Robert Nathaniel Dett. He is the dedicatee of the Sonata written in 1954 and premiered that year in Cheltenham. Lewis Foreman in his typically valuable notes - perhaps drier than his usual style though - tells us that it could be considered a sonata-ballade in the Medtner tradition. That is spot-on. Medtner yes ... but Medtner with infusions of Bartók and Rawsthorne. This is powerful music rising to bell-tower heroics at 11:26 then slipping into Bach-Finzi ‘zippiness’ at 13:00 accelerating into the home straight before changing down for a splendour-weighted and lightning-lit finale. Outstandingly impressive!

On to the second disc:

A Birthday Song was written in 1963 for the famous piano duo Mary and Geraldine Peppin. They had premiered Stevens’ Introduction and Allegro in 1957. The main theme is derived from the sisters’ first names. Its style is mirror smooth and lyrical with trills that recall nothing so much as Gerald Finzi in his Eclogue and his Grand Fantasia.

Then come three early contrapuntal studies for piano solo. The Fugato (1936) is a 12-tone work while the Invention from 1937 is clearly and reverently sculpted by the example of Bach. Also Bachian is the succeeding Fugue à 3. These piece would go well alongside Harriet Cohen’s Bach Book collection.

The Fantasia on an Irish Ho-Hoane was Stevens’ first piano duet composition. It dates from 1949 and was written for Helen Pyke and Paul Hamburger; the latter a familiar name from BBC broadcasts of the 1950s-1970s. Ho-Hoane derives tortuously from the Gaelic for a croon or lament. The Fantasia is part of a group of four keyboard pieces modelled on Elizabethan fantasias. It is a wide-ranging piece: dancing, dramatic, regal and reflective. There are no avant-garderies here.

Then come four short pieces for piano solo. There is a gently rocking Barcarolle, a Holst-Grainger like Haymaker’s Dance, A rather rigid canon called The Mirror, and a glintingly playful Square Dance worthy of an Irish dancing floor. After these relaxations comes the dreamy, Chopin-like impressionism of Aria which is a second cousin to the Barcarolle - a lovely piece with a Lake in the Woods cantilena to hush any audience into silence.

The Introduction and Allegro was premiered by the Peppin sisters. In fact I have a now rather watery-sounding tape of its broadcast on the Third Programme from 30 July 1958. The earnest Introduction is plagued with a Beethovenian fate motif. This piece was later orchestrated and expanded as Choriamb op. 41.

The Peppins were very active in then contemporary music. They broadcast Arnold Cooke’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Stanley Bate’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos. They also premiered Lambert’s Trois Pieces Nègres Pour Les Touches Blanches in 1949.

The Two Dances op. 33 are for four hands one piano. They date from 1962 though they were not premiered until 1978 and then by the artists who play all the duets and duos here: the renowned Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul. This is intricate writing with plenty of rhythmic interest but rather cold-emotionally speaking. Atonality is embraced pretty freely.

A negligible lapse: the order of the background notes in the booklet differs from the playing order on CD2.

More dodecaphony comes in the form of the placidly proceeding Fuga alla sarabanda which is dedicated to pianist Richard Deering whose fine Saga LP of English music some oldsters may recall.

The Nocturne on a Note Row by Ronald Stevenson. This was written in 1979 to mark Stevenson’s fiftieth birthday in 1978. Artful use is made of a 12-note row so that discords add spice but do not obstruct communication with the listener. Whether intended or not the piece somehow conjures up a starlit night and the majestically glittering firmament. This music seems only a step away from the mystical invocatory quality of the quiet orchestral writing in Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax.

Then comes the Elegiac Fugue on the name Geraldine. This touchingly emotional Fugue from 1981 was written in memory of Geraldine Peppin. Frankly this is a superbly majestic piece which would add sturdy splendour to any recital. It is one of the neglected wonders of the British piano repertoire. Stevens manages to fend off the desperate desiccation normally attendant on any fugue.

Finally there is the Concertante for Two Pianos. This was for the Daguls and was written in Minorca in 1982. They had in fact requested a concerto for two pianos and string orchestra but the score recovered after Stevens’ death was only for two pianos. After a heroic and challenging first movement comes another of those starry firmaments (cf the Stevenson Nocturne). The motion of the halting waltz-inflected finale has an irresistible momentum that makes this piece extremely imposing even if the final page left me wondering about the work’s completeness.

This is a fine set with clearly authoritative playing from the Daguls, a touching and historically important contribution by composer-pianist Michael Finnissy and wondrously impressive work by Florian Uhlig.

No collection of British piano music is complete without this two CD single width set.

There are so many highlights here - any one of which would justify the purchase of this invaluable set. Personal favourites include the Piano Sonata, the Ballades, Barcarolle and Birthday Song, the Concertante and the majestic Elegiac Fugue. Not to be missed ... and at 2 for 1 price.

Rob Barnett


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