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Ronald STEVENSON (b. 1928)

Three Lyric Pieces (1947–50) [16:33]
Three Nativity Pieces (1949) [15.00]
Symphonic Elegy for Liszt (1986) [14:15]
A Carlyle Suite (1995) [19.13]
Scottish Folk Music Settings for piano (c.1959-65) [13.17]
Sheena Nicoll (piano)
rec. The Whiteley Hall, Chethams School of Music, Manchester, 19-20 April 2006

Whereas many composers of the twentieth-century emphasised harmonic and rhythmic innovations, the composer Ronald Stevenson has always allowed melody a position of primacy in his music. Perhaps ‘allowed’ is the wrong word - as if melody was an unwelcome guest at the 20th century music table. On the contrary, Stevenson cannot help being a melodist as can be readily heard in the several hundred songs he has composed. This new CD of piano works performed by a long-standing friend and champion of the composer, Sheena Nicoll provides further evidence of the lyrical strain running through Stevenson's music.
By the mid-to late 1940s Stevenson was already composing at a considerable rate. Dramatic and piquant works like the first three sonatinas for piano and the Sonata for Violin and Piano were written around this time, yet the Three Lyric Pieces, written between 1947 and 1950 emphasise melody to a greater extent. The first of them, Vox Stellarum, contains some wonderful wide-spaced textures and flowing double-note passages in the right hand. The harmony oscillates between major and minor as if Schubert might have been the model. Nicoll plays gently and calmly throughout as the melodies unfold. The second lyric piece, Choral Prelude for Jean Sibelius, was written in 1948. Stevenson sent it to the composer and received an encouraging response by letter; it is easy to see why since the piece is full of striking ideas including a noble theme in D flat major that appears after a mysterious introduction. Even more remarkable is the final piece of the set, Andante Sereno, written in 1950. I have listened to this piece many times and yet new subtleties are revealed on each hearing; such maturity for a composer barely out of his teens! The music begins in duple time but later there is a subtle shift to quintuple rhythm. Here Stevenson uses unusual scales in contrary motion; a favourite device that resurfaces in the Symphonic Elegy for Liszt heard later on the recording.
The Three Nativity Pieces were written in 1949 and again showed the young Stevenson's mature melodic style. The first piece, Gold: Children’s March, is rather jaunty with a clipped theme in dotted rhythm well marked by the performer. The second piece is called Frankincense: Arabesque, and contains subtle flourishes of unusual harmony, the effect been somewhat mysterious. Myrrh: Elegiac Carol is the final piece of the set. Its unusual title describes perfectly the ambiguous nature of the peace as if the death of the infant was already presaged in cradle. Taken as a group these two sets of three pieces are highly expressive and original. Their originality is quiet and not iconoclastic.
Nearly 40 years separate Vox Stellarum from the Symphonic Elegy for Liszt. This large-scale and ambitious work seeks to encapsulate the many aspects of Liszt’s personality through the symbolism of the seasons. This was the first piece of sheet music of Stevenson I bought and was therefore my personal introduction to his work. Unlike most of the music on the Nicoll disc this work has been recorded before in a virtuoso performance by Joseph Banowetz on the Altarus label. Nicoll’s reading is somewhat cooler than Banowetz’s yet the work still has a powerful effect.
Nicholl feels very much at home in the next piece on the CD, A Carlyle Suite. This is not surprising since Stevenson wrote the work for her in 1996 in response to a commission from the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Thomas Carlyle's birth. Coincidentally Nicoll was then living in the town where Carlyle was born, Ecclefechan. This unusual and intimate work seeks to evoke a musical event in the life of Carlyle and his wife Jane. There are references to Chopin and folk melodies. The centrepiece of the work is a set of variations on the King of Prussia’s theme (as used by Bach in The Musical Offering). Here the composer traverses a short history of musical styles ranging from Bach’s day to the 20th century. Nicoll is alive to the shifts of gear inherent in such a plan and renders the music not so much as pastiche but rather as an affectionate tribute to the different styles as seen through the Stevenson filter.
The final set of pieces is from Stevenson’s settings of Scottish folk songs which occupied the composer during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Stevenson inscribed these settings ‘lovingly and reverently dedicated to Percy Grainger’, in so doing mirroring Grainger’s identical wording in his dedication to Grieg of his folk song settings. Stevenson corresponded with Grainger and clearly sees his work as following some of the older composers example. Like Grainger’s, Stevenson’s settings contain much ingenuity within a simple framework..
This CD is a welcome release of the gentler side of Ronald Stevenson’s art. Whilst lyricism reigns throughout most of the music on CD, Stevenson’s characteristic rigour of compositional thought is also apparent. As well as containing essential music, this CD is also a touching record of a friendship between composer and pianist that has lasted many decades. All the music on the CD is published in excellent typeset editions by the Ronald Stevenson Society. Much of the writing eschews the virtuosity to be found in such works as Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy or Le festin d’Alkan, thereby making the pieces accessible to pianists of more moderate abilities who wish to play for themselves works by this marvellous composer. Anyone interested in twentieth-century piano music should not hesitate to buy this CD and perhaps the scores as well; there are rich rewards to be had from enjoying both.

David Hackbridge Johnson

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Rob Barnett



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