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Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928)
Passacaglia on DSCH (1960-62) [85:25]
Promenade Pastorale (1973) [2:58]
Waltzes (1949-50) [8:24]
Fugue, Variations and Epilogue on a Theme by Arnold Bax (2003) [16:47]
Nocturne (Homage to John Field) (1952) [5:58]
Variations on a Theme of Pizzetti (1955) [13:37]
Sonatina No. 2 (1947) [7:25]
James Willshire (piano)
rec. Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, 10-11 December 2012; 3-5 June and 2 July 2013
DELPHIAN DCD34119 [74:55 + 65:44]

I first came across Ronald Stevenson at the Glasgow Proms in 1972. The work in question was his Second Piano Concerto. It was at this time that I first heard about the legendary ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’. A resistance to very long works or maybe even a lack of enthusiasm for Shostakovich means that I have not - until now - got around to hearing this massive piece. There is no excuse: better late than never.

Ronald Stevenson is undoubtedly best-known for this Passacaglia - even by those who have not listened to it. However, Stevenson has contributed a huge quantity of music in a wide variety of genres. There are four concertos - two for piano, one for cello and one for violin. There are many vocal settings of Scottish and English poets including his friend Hugh MacDiarmid. As I understand it, there is no symphony (unless one includes the early Berceuse Symphonique or the very late Ben Dorain) and as yet no opera. The largest element of Stevenson’s catalogue comprises works for piano solo. At the last count, there are over 500 pieces/works/movements: these cover a wide range of forms, styles, emotions and durations. Especially prominent are his transcriptions of other composer’s music. Furthermore, listeners must not forget that Stevenson is a considerable pianist. His performance style is in the romantic tradition of Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Ignaz Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky.

I decided to pencil in 85½ minutes on Monday 2 December 2013 to listen to this work from end to end with only a short break to change CDs. I was, to use a Northern expression, ‘gobsmacked’. I guess it was the sheer scale of this music that impressed me. My mind did not wander too much and I was able to follow the ‘working out’ of each part and the various sub-divisions given in the track listings. Nevertheless, I do wish that I had borrowed the piano score from the library.

I do not feel that I can analyse this piece in detail, however, five things are worth noting. Firstly, the work was begun in 1960 and was completed in 1962. It was given its first performance by the composer in Cape Town, South Africa in 1963. It was established in the United Kingdom by John Ogdon at the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival.

Secondly, the total structure is presented in three massive ‘parts’. These are subdivided into a number of sections suggesting a wide variety of moods and utilising many styles. For example, in the ‘Pars Prima’ there is a Sonata Allegro, followed by a Waltz in rondo form and concluding with a Nocturne. Included in this massive canvas is a complete ‘suite’ containing a ‘Prelude, Sarabande, Jig, Sarabande, Minuet, another Jig, a Gavotte and a Polonaise’. The sixth subsection of Pars Prima is a Pibroch (Lament for the Children). In other sections of the Passacaglia there are allusions and references to African drumming, a Spanish Fandango and Bach. These diverse movements and subdivisions continue towards the conclusion of ‘Pars Tertia’ which is itself a set of variations on a theme within the DSCH variations themselves.

Thirdly, the entire work is based on Shostakovich’s name - the first letter ‘D’ from the fore-name and SCH from the first three letters of the surname presented in German notation. It was a conceit used by Shostakovich himself in a number of works. This motif forms the theme of the ‘passacaglia’ and is apparently never varied - except by transformation.

Fourthly, the composer calls for what has been termed a ‘thesaurus’ of pianistic devices. This ranges from a simple melodic line for one hand to massive chords played with the fist, and from the use of harmonics to glissandi performed inside the piano. It is technically difficult music that is demanding for the pianist, but also for the listener.

Finally, in such a long, colossal work as this, there is bound to be some unevenness of invention and sometimes a lack of substance. This seems to count for little: it is the overall impression that matters. In Hegelian terms, it is the synthesis that is the important element in this work, not the various theses and antitheses. I, like many other listeners, was surprised by how ‘quickly’ the time passed whilst listening to this work and also how the total impression is one of triumph. It is not a work that I can turn to regularly, but it is a piece that shall long remain in my memory.

One of Ronald Stevenson’s ‘signatures’ is musical reference to other composers. Whether this is the ‘Prelude, Fugue & Fantasy on Busoni’s Faust’, theFugue on a Fragment of Chopin’ or the ‘Peter Grimes Fantasy’, Stevenson is always prepared to ‘salute’ the achievement of others. This is carried over into the vast number of transcriptions, paraphrases and arrangements that he has made of classical music, Scottish and other folk material.

Two works that here epitomise this celebration of other composers are the ‘Fugue, Variations and Epilogue on a Theme of Arnold Bax’ and the ‘Variations on a theme of Pizzetti’.

The ‘Bax’ was completed in 2003 but parts of it had been sketched out in the early 1980s. The ‘theme’ used is the principal subject of the slow movement of Bax’s Second Symphony. The work is dedicated ‘For Colin Scott-Sutherland, premier Bax biographer’. It is hard to know whether he is using the word ‘premier’ as in ‘first’ or as ‘foremost’. If the former, I agree, if the latter, it is unfair on Lewis Foreman’s magisterial study of Bax. Both books are complementary and are not in competition. The ‘Fugue, Variations and Epilogue’ was conceived as ‘crystallising’ the composer’s ‘lifelong devotion to a Celtic aesthetic’.

The question that I asked myself was, ‘Is this a pastiche of Bax’s music’? In other words, if I had not known this work was by Ronald Stevenson, would I have thought, ‘Ah! this is an undiscovered piece by Bax.’ If I am honest, the ‘jury is out’ on that. The ‘theme’ - which is not heard until the epilogue - notwithstanding, there are moments when the elder composer’s ‘Celtic Twilight’; is to the fore, and there are other times when Bax seems to be ‘over the hills and far away’. Other colourings enter this music including John Field, Charles Alkan and sometimes a kind of Bath-ian Cornish Rhapsody soundscape. I enjoyed this piece, much of which is very beautiful and always absorbing, but I will have to work harder to understand the ‘aesthetic’ references to Arnold Bax.

I am at a disadvantage with the ‘Variations on a theme of Pizzetti’ as I know virtually nothing from his pen. This work dates from 1955 and was composed during Stevenson’s time spent in Florence and Rome on an Italian government scholarship. Malcolm MacDonald explains that the theme is taken from a ‘Sarabande’ included in Ildebrando Pizzetti’s incidental music to D’Annunzio’s drama La Pisanella which was composed in 1913. Apparently, the original piece had a positive conclusion: Stevenson’s has an ‘altogether darker trajectory’. It is not my favourite piece on this CD, however I accept that it is full of interest and has some delicious moments.

The ‘Promenade Pastorale’ is a delightful miniature. It was composed during Christmas 1973 and is subtitled ‘Hommage à Francis Poulenc et à Graham Johnson’. The latter was a Rhodesian-born pianist who is noted as an accompanist to the Frenchman’s songs and many other composers’ works. This music is happy, and largely untroubled, with occasional musical references to farmyard noises. Elisabeth Lutyens would have been delighted.

I enjoyed the ‘early’ Waltzes dating from 1949/1950. These are a collection of subtle miniatures, which could be likened in concept, if not sound, to Schubert’s ländler. The liner-notes suggest that rather than try to explore these pieces as individual numbers they are best regarded as a ‘single-movement dance poem’. These tunes are wayward, often fun, mainly tongue-in-cheek and downright enjoyable. Hat-tips are made to just about everyone in the ‘waltz world’ including Ravel, Strauss (J) and Chopin. These Waltzes are quite definitely a serious-minded composer ‘letting his hair down’ and they are none the worse for that. It’s probably a good gateway to Stevenson’s heterogeneous style for those who are a wee bit phased with DSCH.

The ‘Nocturne after John Field’ was composed in 1952. The name was later changed to Nocturne (Homage to John Field) to make clear that this is ‘original’ music by Stevenson and not a transcription, arrangement or pastiche. Malcolm MacDonald amusingly says that the piece sounds as if one of Field’s Nocturnes had been rewritten by Alkan and Busoni. There are moments when Field’s own pianism dominates and other times when this tonality is almost destroyed. It is an attractive, romantic and at times withdrawn work that is both compelling and often beautiful.

Malcolm MacDonald points out that Ronald Stevenson has not (yet) composed a formal piano sonata; there are two Sonatas (after Ysaÿe) written in 1981/2 but these are transcriptions or elaborations. There are three Sonatinas all composed in the 1940s. This is not the forum to argue what a ‘sonatina’ actually is. All that can be said is that the musical language of the Sonatina No. 2 is more profound and angular than many examples of the genre, with its nods to Hindemith. It is piquant rather than ‘dissonant’. I imagine that it is the short length of each of the two movements -‘adagietto’ and ‘allegro’ - that justifies the title.

James Willshire was born in 1985. Aged fifteen, he was awarded an Educational Scholarship in the London International Piano Competition, and thus became the youngest British pianist to be recognised in this manner. In 2008 he gave his debut recital at the Royal Festival Hall. Willshire has performed at festivals and concert venues around the United Kingdom and abroad. His concerto repertoire includes Rach 2 and 3, Grieg, Brahms 1 and Beethoven 4. He regularly features ‘contemporary’ music in his recitals and has recently issued the complete piano music of the Scottish composer Rory Boyle (b.1951). He maintains a great interest in musical education and teaches piano at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I recently came across James Willshire in his excellent performance of David Jennings’ piano works on Divine Art DDA25100.

All the works on this disc are stunningly played: the technical difficulties are overcome with boundless skill. Willshire is a tremendous advocate for Stevenson’s music.

The liner-notes by Malcolm MacDonald are superb, and give all the information that the listener could require. They are full of technical and biographical detail, without being overwhelming.

This is an excellent two-CD set that is not quite crammed with music, but is certainly excellent value. Being greedy, I wondered if they could have squeezed a couple of smaller numbers onto the second disc. The quality of the sound is excellent as I have come to expect from Delphian.

I have already admitted to this being the first opportunity that I have taken to hear the Passacaglia, so I am unable to compare this disc with John Ogdon’s recording, nor those of Murray Mclachlan (Divine Art 25013, 2004), Raymond Clarke on Marco Polo 223545 (1994) or the composer’s own rendition currently available on Altarus AIR-CD 9091 (1995). I am sure that someone, somewhere, sometime will make this evaluation: however that will not be me. Much as I enjoyed this colossal, overwhelming work that largely defies superlatives, I guess that it will be a wee while before I make time to hear it again. It does need to be heard in its entirety at one sitting. The shorter pieces will feature in my ‘listening schedules’ alongside other works in my CD collection from the pen of Ronald Stevenson.

John France 



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