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’
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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