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James STEVENS (b.1923)
Miniature Overture - In a Nutshell (1956) [3:37]
Symphony No. 1 (1954) [21:10]
A Coronation Overture - Lion and Unicorn (1953) [8:47]
Symphony No. 2 (1955) [29:42]
Musique Concrète (from film The Rival World, dir. Bert Haanstra) (1956) [4:28]
BBC Northern Orchestra/Stanford Robinson; BBC Scottish Orchestra/Ian Whyte (Coronation). ADD
rec. BBC broadcast recordings, transfers from composer's 78rpm and 33rpm acetate transcription discs. 1956 (Miniature); 8 Nov 1954 (1); 12 Apr 1953 (Coronation); 24 May 1955 (2); 26 June 1956 (Musique). ADD
PRISTINE AUDIO XR PASC100 [67:45]

James Stevens studied with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger. He has written many other works apart from those featured here including two further symphonies. His film scores include Cockleshell Heroes, The Baby and the Battleship and Ring Around the Earth

These mono recordings are from the composer's archive acetates. With Pristine's technical magic and sheer punctilious hard work they sound strong if unsophisticated. This is honest-to-goodness analogue mono from BBC broadcasts. 

Stevens - to be distinguished from Bernard – proves that he can write in an easily approachable tonal idiom. There is a twist of Copland in In a Nutshell which is announced by a BBC presenter in typically 1950s accent and style. This little overture has a film-calypso air about it with plenty of glint and silver to top it off. There’s a touch of Benjamin and Williamson here as well. The First Symphony is not announced. It is in three movements. The first is in an obviously more complex idiom which is dyspeptic. While never cutting the ties to lyricism it can be equated with the tortured tonality of Alwyn and Rawsthorne. The luminously plangent language of Roy Harris and John Veale can be heard in the second movement but through a recording that works to obscure the detail. The finale is crunchingly dramatic -with a febrile plunging panicky anxiety at large. The final victory is grippingly sour. The symphony won a Royal Philhamonic Society prize. The Lion and Unicorn is a Coronation year effort. It is an uproarious affair with more of the Rabelaisian Auric about it than the Walton or Ferguson march-overtures of that year. The other voices are again Harris and Copland. This recording is announced, unlike that of the Second Symphony which, sadly, suffers from some 'tizzing' distortion. It is in four movements which again touch on the lyrical complexities of Rawsthorne and Shostakovich – some Arnell here too. The third movement is a sinister and poisonously searing but extremely inventive Adagio with an acidic dissonant edginess. This carries over into the final anxiety-threaded Maestoso. Stevens must have been open to electronic music because the final track, called Musique Concrète is a warbling, buzzing, grunting and grumbling mixture of electronic sounds used as a soundtrack for a film about the ‘evils’ of the insect world. The sensationally melodramatic commentary takes us back to those ten minute documentaries of the 1940s and 1950s but adds a touch of Hammer horror and Vincent Price. Its humanising of insect activity is a strangely sinister echo of the gratingly anthropomorphic saccharine cutesiness of the Walt Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s.

You can also hear James Stevens’ Reluctant Masquerade (see review) and his miniature Concerto Concitato for piano and orchestra via Pristine recordings. Well worth hearing even if with my copy of the disc there were no notes about the composer or his music. You can find these at the Pristine site

Psychologically complex music productively adrift in the shadowlands between tonality and dissonance.

Rob Barnett

More about James Stevens is available here

 

 


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