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Ronald STEVENSON (1928–2015) Piano Music - Volume Three
African Twi-Tune: The Bantu and Akrikaaner National Hymns Combined (1964) [1:40] Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Hill Song No. 1 (transcr. Stevenson, 1960) [22:19] Ronald STEVENSON
Sounding Strings (1979) [19:16]
Chinese Folk-Song Suite (1965) [12:44]
Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite (1965) [6:04] Traditional (arr. Stevenson)
Bonny at Morn (1990) [3:47]
The High Road to Linton (1978) [2:31] Barra Flyting Toccata (1980) [1:46]
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 2018, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton. TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0403 [70:22]
In his compositions Ronald Stevenson seemed at times to channel the spirit of Busoni, a composer he greatly admired. He brings this aspect into confluence with folk voices and an over-arching simplicity. Layers of complexity are not for him and certainly not in the scores featured on this disc. While he admired Sorabji greatly, he held in check that composer’s predilection for the involved and the ornate; at least he did when it came to these pieces.
Early in his adult life Blackburn-born Stevenson moved to West Linton not far from Edinburgh. There he found sympathetic voices that spoke to him. Apart from Scottish and folk elements the music of other ‘contemporary’ composers surfaced and these included Grainger, Britten and Bax. He drew inspiration from all three.
Christopher Guild and Toccata have already bestowed on us two Toccata volumes of the piano music and there are more to come. The Guild-Toccata project looks to be the largest and most pleasingly systematic of all. That said, you should not miss Divine Arts’ Murray McLachlan three-disc set from a few years ago.
The extended English-only essay in Toccata’s weighty booklet is by Christopher Guild, the pianist here. It is reflectively entitled “A musical coalescence; embracing all humanity through music”. Guild reminds that Stevenson composed extensively: there are two piano concertos and an as yet unrecorded symphony and concertos - one each for violin and for cello. He was an advocate for John Foulds and Ronald Center (the latter also played by Guild for Toccata) and a fervent admirer of Shostakovich as his epic DSCH Passacaglia goes to show.
Stevenson was also an internationalist, a libertarian, a fierce critic of apartheid even when working in Cape Town in the early 1960s where, improbably enough, he recorded his most famous and most extended work, DSCH Passacaglia.
The Stevenson transcription of the first of Grainger's two Hillsongs trades in a muscular brand of folk delicacy, wild asides and eloquent nobility. It's certainly not an example of cod-tartan Scottishry nor has it any truck with Grainger's wheezily popular idiom. Group this rather with Grainger’s wild and unkempt The Warriors (now there’s a work that Stevenson might have been tempted to transcribe had Grainger not already prepared various versions) although the textures are simpler and the emphasis is not on wildly piled-high exultation. It’s the most extended piece here and feels more Stevenson than Grainger. Indeed, Stevenson told Grainger it was more his “commentary” on Hillsong No. 1 than a literal transcription. The pianist, in his essay, tell us that Grainger's Kipling song Dedication is aptly added in to the Hillsong transcription.
Folk-song is a central spar in this collection. The word is there in the titles of two 1965 suites - Chinese Folk Song Suite and Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite but that is only an outward show. It’s part of the fabric of the total of 79 minutes of music on this disc. It always bubbles away and erupts outwards and ranges from the most gentle to the obviously wild-eyed and expansive. The very short African Twi-Tune (with a title reminiscent of Alan Bush's Corentyne Kwe-Kwe) combines the national anthems of both the Bantu and the Afrikaaner. Then across 14 miniatures, Stevenson presents 14 folk tunes and dances under the title Sounding Strings. This assemblage is from all corners and nations of Celtic culture. Sounding Strings can be played on concert harp, clarsach or piano. Stevenson's daughter Savourna, be it noted, is a skilled player of the clarsach. These are direct speaking unaffected accounts of the materials from which they directly derive. In this company I single out the gently outlined The sheep under the snow as the most memorable.
Switching from the Celtic world to the Chinese we have the five-movement Chinese Folk-Song Suite. Oriental idioms can be heard but the most affecting is the War Widow’s Lament. As with all this music it is easy to assimilate but is written (and played) with genuine depth of feeling. The tripartite Ghanaian Suite, less than half the length of the Chinese Suite, was inspired and more, by a published collection of Ghanaian folk songs. Stevenson came into contact with these in 1965 while employed in South Africa, just before he came back to the UK to settle in Scotland. To my ears these three pieces are less fixed with local colour. On the other hand, perhaps I am not familiar enough with the idiom. I might well need an immersion course in Ghanaian music. This music feels more supply responsive to Western models. In that sense it is somewhat like Alan Bush's anti-Apartheid Symphonic Movement for piano and orchestra - Africa.
We end with three Scottish pieces. Bonny at Morn is a gently-breathed outline of the famed folk song. The High Road to Linton ripples with the energy of muscular calves projecting the traveller to Linton. It’s a tune ascribed to a fiddler who had in earlier years lived in the house occupied by Stevenson. The collection ends with the brief jubilee flourish that is Barra Flyting Toccata. “Flyting” is, I discover, a contest between two Barra-folk in persiflage and insults. The victory is won in short order.
Christopher Guild's playing - which we are already accustomed to - is brilliant as to both affecting poetry and blood-stirring fire. The audio side is quite the apposite of being a hindrance to this music and these performances. Rob Barnett