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Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928)
Passacaglia on DSCH (1962)
Ronald Stevenson (piano)
rec. 1964, Cape Town, South Africa, ADD
APR 5650 [74:43]

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The Transcendental Tradition
Schubert/Liszt
Du bist die Ruh' S558/3
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Etude No 18A, (Op. 10 No. 9 (3rd version), for left hand alone)
Gluck/Alkan
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Stevenson
Peter Grimes Fantasy
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Stevenson
Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on themes from Busoni's Doktor Faust
Ronald Stevenson (piano)
rec. live, Recital Hall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 21 April 1976, CBC. ADD
APR 5630 [76:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the first commercial issue for Stevenson's famous 1964 recording of his DSCH Passacaglia - a master-work of the last century. The recording was issued in a limited edition of 100 2LP sets. Unsurprisingly copies are famously scarce. The back cover of the original LP is reproduced on the back of the booklet. You might also read the review of the book on Stevenson for more information.

The Passacaglia is in three parts, the schema of which is listed in detail in the rear insert of the CD case.

Stevenson began work on the Passacaglia on Christmas Eve 1960 and substantially completed it on 18 May 1962 ready to present to Shostakovich during the 1962 Edinburgh Festival.

The work itself spans a vast range of mood and colour. Delicate little music-box transformations like those in the Suite at tr. 4 (5:30) and the liquid jewelled arabesque variations (tr. 6) contrast with the dissonant skirl of Pibroch. The Reverie Fantasy at the start of Pars altera after the Nocturne that closes Pars prima, begins a seismic upheaval with metallic arpeggiation created by strumming across the exposed internal piano strings. The catchy Symphonic March shakes the foundations. This vast work carries the blessed scars of influences such as those of J.S. Bach, Chopin and Shostakovich. These are cheek by jowl with Spanish voices and an African war-dance to mark the emergent nations. The great variations at the end of the Pars Altera are stunningly done. The angular and motoric Triple Fugue provides a nice contrast with Bachian quietude (tr. 20). The Totentanz provides a Dies Irae style irruption on tr.21. The whole thing holds the listener in thrall and could hardly be more authoritative.

This private recording, made in Cape Town, caught the imagination of William Walton who urged OUP to publish the work which they eventually did in 1968. Stevenson gave the work its European premiere on 6 June 1966 at Halle in the then DDR. No doubt the subject matter and schema of the work would have found it ready friends as at that time did the operas and other works of Alan Bush also much favoured in the concert halls and opera houses of the Democratic Republic. Stevenson contributed chapters to Alan J Poulton’s festschrift on Alan Bush in the late 1970s. John Ogdon premiered the Passacaglia in the UK at Aldeburgh in 1966 having previously broadcast it on the BBC on 22 May 1966. In 1967 EMI Classics issued Ogdon's studio recording. Stevenson made another recording - this time for Altarus in 1988. Raymond Clarke recorded it for Marco Polo in 1993 as did Mark Gasser privately.

The sound has been most beautifully captured from the analogue original. I wonder if this is from the original master tape or from a good LP. Allowing for a certain claustrophobic sensation is very enjoyable. Never has this recording sounded as well grounded and as secure.

Do not be put off by references to hands inside the piano. It’s mostly a case of the piano played as expected - just supremely well by a composer at the sustained peak of his executant powers. The disc is made the more accessible by being in 21 tracks so one can study this deeply rewarding work with great ease. The excellent notes also help more than a little.

It is mono and ADD but the atmosphere of the disc is helped by such tasteful little touches as the disc top being designed as if it were the original LP in the manner of the Sony Originals series.

As for the second disc: this is a refugee from a concert recorded by CBC in Vancouver on 21 April 1976. For a start there's the ineffable repose and grace of the Schubert-Liszt Du bist die Ruh'. The Chopin-Godowsky Etude No.18a for the left-hand entangles complexity around the Chopin original. The Gluck/Alkan Gavotte d'Orphée is spirited. We then come to three Percy Grainger transcriptions. We know that the two composers - Stevenson and Grainger - regarded each other highly and the two corresponded. Stevenson contributed to various published Grainger studies and has recorded his music. The Ramble on Love is a masterly transcription of the last scene of Strauss's Rosenkavalier with Klimtian sprays of notes shimmering and sparkling. Grainger also tackled Gershwin's Love walked In and The Man I Love. The first accords the full trembling Liszt treatment to Gershwin's perennial standard. The second handles the Gershwin standard with great tenderness - more love than respect. Stevenson's friendship with Britten endured and Britten's Aldeburgh Festival in 1966 made time for Ogdon's UK premiere of the DSCH Passacaglia. In the Peter Grimes Fantasy Stevenson pays court to the Grimesian Storm interlude among many other strands. Then follows the imposing Bach/Busoni Chaconne. Stevenson's Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on themes from Busoni's Doktor Faust is another magnificently woven complex skein full of rewarding and dignified interaction and striking attitudinal gestures. In 1960 the composer converted the work into his Piano Concerto No.1 A Faust Triptych. The work has grave magnificence: taciturn yet fluent. Stevenson has the gift of appearing to confide his interpretations rather than announcing them. There is a palpable personal engagement in his communication.

The sound is not perfect in this more than thirty year old radio broadcast tape but it is invaluable to enthusiasts and anyone who wants to engage with great pianism and poignancy. Stevenson moves from the simple fluency of the Schubert to the rewarding and intricately tempestuous complexity of his own works.

Rob Barnett


 


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