I was telling a friend about the arrival of Ronald Stevenson’s piano
music CDs on my doorstep. What surprised him most was that for once
in my life I was lost for words.
My usual methodology for a review would be to work through the track-listings
in either batting or chronological order, making comments on each.
However, this is beyond me in this instance. Firstly, I was overwhelmed
by the sheer width and depth of the repertoire. Secondly, every piece
is brand new to me: I felt that it would take longer to absorb this
music than a decent turn-around time for a review would normally demand.
Thirdly, I felt that if I were to comment or analyse each track I
would end up writing an essay the size of a large dissertation. This
brought me back to point one. I am so reliant on the liner-notes for
historical and contextual information that the reader may as well
read them as my review.
However, something demands to be said. What I propose to do is to
give a thumbnail sketch of the composer and his music (a hopeless
task!), briefly consider the ‘genres’ of piano music presented, and
finally pick out two or three groups of works that impressed me most
on first or second hearing.
Ronald Stevenson is one of the most important living composers. Alas,
he is probably best known for having composed what is regarded as
‘the biggest single-movement work in the piano literature’ the Passacaglia
on DSCH, which is some 80 minutes long. The Symphonic Nocturne
for Piano Alone by Sorabji is actually longer. This is unfair.
Stevenson has written a huge range of compositions in virtually every
genre with the exception of symphony (excepting the massive Ben
Dorain) and opera; there is an early Berceuse Symphonique.
There are four impressive concertos – two for piano, one for fiddle
and one for cello. Stevenson has contributed handsomely to vocal music
with many settings of Scottish and English poets including Hugh MacDiarmid,
William Soutar, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Blake. Nor has
he ignored poets from other cultures - there are setting of the Japanese
poet Basho, the Vietnamese Ho-Chi-Minh and the American Edgar Allan
Poe. Other music includes a number of choral settings, an impressive
list of choral works and educational music. One of the largest categories
in his catalogue is for piano: there are in excess of 500 pieces/works/movements
for that instrument.
Ronald Stevenson is also a great pianist. He is in the trajectory
of the grand romantic pianists of the past such as Busoni, Leopold
Godowsky, Percy Grainger and Paderewski. Later exponents of this style
of playing included John Ogdon and Earl Wild. However it is Busoni
and Godowsky that I feel reflects much of the music presented in these
I do not wish to develop a debate about the differences between transcription,
arrangement and paraphrase, however it needs to be understood that
these nouns are applicable to the vast majority of pieces in the collection.
Three loose definitions may not go amiss. Firstly an arrangement is
quite simply an adaptation of a musical work for another instrument
or ensemble than it was originally intended. Secondly a transcription,
leads on from an arrangement, but usually introduces ‘more or less
imaginative changes’ which may or may not be taken as conforming to
the composer's own procedure, if he had written for the medium.
Finally, a Paraphrase is usually seen as being a solo work of ‘great
virtuosity’ in which well known melodies were considerably elaborated.
All three practices are presented on this CD. However there can often
be a wee bit of blurring around the edges.
A good summary of Stevenson’s place in the musical sphere is given
in the liner notes: ‘If we reject, as too superficial, the standard
distinctions between transcription and free composition, one comes
close to understanding Stevenson’s outstanding corpus of music. Of
course, individual pieces vary enormously both in terms of approach
and in terms of style. It is as though Stevenson’s music as a whole
becomes a kind of meeting place for kindred and diverse spirits.’
For this reason, I believe that it is not possible to describe what
Ronald Stevenson’s music ‘sounds like’.
I want to look at two groups of works –the Chopin and the Purcell
pieces. However before that I believe that the opening track acts
as a kind of ‘prelude’ to the entire CD set. This transcription of
Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod (Come sweet death) BWV 478 was made
in 1991 on the ‘birthday’ of Busoni. The sleeve-notes suggest that
this piece is a ‘modest curtain raiser’ – well it may be comparatively
modest in terms of the ‘massiveness’ of Stevenson’s music, however
for me this rework of the original is both highly romantic and deeply
moving. The sentiment of the original has been retained in its entirety,
but re-presented in a musical language alien to, but complementary
to, Bach’s intention. It is dedicated to Leopold Stokowski, who gave
much encouragement to Stevenson.
A good place to begin a detailed exploration of these CDs would be
with the seven ‘Purcell’ numbers. The ‘Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s
‘New Scotch Tune’’ is a work that has been revised and added to over
the years. It is a lovely, moody piece that is more ‘bluesy’ than
‘jazzy’. The preceding Purcell ‘Toccata’
was composed in 1955. In the composer’s opinion it is ‘a very fine
transcription which is respectful and newly individual; traditional
and exploratory ... musicological ... and inventive – Yes!’ It works
well for piano. The ‘Three Grounds (after Purcell)’ date from 1995.
Once again these are beautifully contrived pieces that take the original
material written for strings and literally recreate them for the piano.
These are attractive retrospective tunes that typify Stevenson’s ability
to view earlier composers through his own compositional lens. The
‘Hornpipe’ and ‘The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell)’ are equally effective:
however the former seems further from Purcell’s intention with its
hard-edged harmonies than the latter, which is heart-achingly lovely.
The first CD contains the ‘complete’ Stevenson/Chopin transcriptions
and paraphrases. The liner-notes point out that Leopold Godowsky’s
‘53 Studies Based on Chopin Etudes’ had a huge impact on Stevenson
‘as both a composer and pianist’. The Pénseés sur des Préludes
de Chopin are dark and introverted: each number is prefaced by
a quotation from the French philosopher Pascal. Stevenson picks and
chooses bits and pieces of Chopin’s music and combines and recombines
them at will. It is a deep work that seems to transcend the original.
I enjoyed, if not quite related to, this adaptation. However, some
listeners would rather that Stevenson had not ‘tinkered’ with what
most regard as original masterpieces.
The mood is much lighter with the ‘Variations-Study on a Chopin Waltz’.
It is a lovely re-working of the original posthumous C sharp minor
Waltz making it much more involved and technically complex than the
original. The ‘Etudette d'après Korsakov et Chopin’ is fun
with allusions to bumble-bees and etudes: complex but thoroughly enjoyable.
The Chopin section continues with a Waltz ‘spectacular’ – ‘Three Contrapuntal
Studies on Chopin Waltzes’. Chopin on vacation in Vienna would be
my take. This definitely reinforces Bruno Walter’s view that Strauss
waltzes are ‘Champagne from Heaven’! Finally there is a ‘Fugue on
a Fragment of Chopin’ – in this case based on the theme from the F
minor ‘Ballade’. To quote the liner-notes, ‘this is given full textbook
fugal treatment, complete with Busonian craftsmanship and erudition
via eloquent pianistic layouts and exhaustive permutations of double
Other fine works on this CD set include the delicious ‘L’art du chant
appliqué au piano – Volume 1 & 2’ which are transcriptions, re-workings,
paraphrases, arrangements (call them what you will) of a number of
well-kent tunes such as Frank Bridge’s ‘Go not, Happy day’, Ivor Novello’s
‘We’ll gather lilacs’, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Demande et Réponse’
(from Petite Suite de Concert Op. 7). Other composers represented
in these two volumes include Meyerbeer, Maud Valérie White, Sigmund
Romberg and Sergei Rachmaninov. They are invariably a joy and a pleasure
to listen to. Then there is the massive Le Festin d’Alkan:
Concerto for Solo Piano with its three movements: Free Composition,
Free Transcription and Free Multiple Variations.
So much could be said about this work that, in the composer’s words
“encapsulate my idea that composition, transcription and variation
are all essentially the same thing”.
I could have majored on the two Ysaÿe Sonata transcriptions, the ‘Norse
Elegy’ or the ‘Canonic Caprice on 'The Bat'’. Then there
are the Mozart arrangements …
I was extremely impressed by Murray McLachlan’s playing on these three
superb discs. This complex, usually technically difficult - if not
nearly impossible, at times - music demands a huge technique and considerable
confidence to play and interpret successfully. In recent years, I
have reviewed McLachlan’s stunning cycle of Erik Chisholm’s piano
music, so it came as no surprise that he brought the same commitment,
dynamism and sensitivity to the pages of this music. This is a major
project representing a cross-section of Ronald Stevenson’s music for
piano. Yet it serves as a perfect ‘introduction’. I am not sure whether
‘Divine Art’ mean to issue further releases of the composer’s music,
however just glancing at the list of piano music on the Stevenson
suggests that there is enormous potential for the future.
The liner-notes by Murray McLachlan are excellent, comprehensive and
interesting. They do require to be read before addressing
this music. This is not because the works need explanation
before enjoyment, but simply to put them into context.
This is an important release. I hope that it will act as a spur to
other performers and record companies to examine more of this composer’s
scores. However, the present 3-CD set will long remain as a monument
to the achievement of Ronald Stevenson.
see also review by Paul