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Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
A Scottish Triptych: Keening Sang for a Makar: In memoriam Francis George Scott (1959) [7:19]
Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard (1976-79) [6:01]
A Scottish Triptych: Chorale Pibroch for Sorley Maclean (1967) [6:11]
Toccata-Reel “The High Road to Linton” (includes a Coda by John Fritzell) (1978) [2:31]
Barra Flyting Toccata (1980) [1:32] Frank MERRICK (1886-1981)/Ronald STEVENSON
Hebridean Seascape (c.1936? /1986) [11:00]
Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune” (1964/75) [5:03]
A Threepenny Sonatina: Homage to Kurt Weill [Sonatina no.5] (1987/88) [5:51]
Recitative and Air: In Memoriam Shostakovich (1974) [5:49] J.S. BACH (1685-1750)/Leopold STOKOWSKI (1882-1977)/Ronald STEVENSON ‘Komm, süsser Tod’ BWV 478 (1991) [3:41] Henry PURCELL (1659-95)/Ronald STEVENSON
Hornpipe (1995) [3:02]
Three Grounds: Ground in C minor (1955), [2:25]; Ground in E minor, transcribed as Ground in E flat minor, (1957) [2:47]; Ground in D minor (1958) [1:50]
Toccata (1955) [5:50]
The Queen’s Dolour- A Farewell (1959) [3:03]
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
No recording details given PRIMA FACIEPFCD107 [73:55]
There is a three-fold hermeneutic that can be used to appreciate Ronald Stevenson’s music. The first principle to understand is that he is an eclectic composer. Stevenson has used scales and structures from around the world. Secondly, he was a man born out of his time. He ‘sits’ in a trajectory of virtuoso romantic pianists including Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Ignaz Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky. All these men were distinguished composers and applied themselves to original works and writing arrangements, transcriptions and fantasias of other people’s music. And thirdly, Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 6 March 1928, but early on adopted Scotland as his ‘national’ home. He took a huge interest in Scottish literature, music, politics (he was a Marxist for many years) and sociology. He knew several writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, including the wayward but brilliant Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean. Which brings us round in a full circle. Despite being enthusiastic and knowledgeable about ‘world music’ at a time when few bothered, it is the Scottish musical world that colours much of his work.
Volume 2 of Kenneth Hamilton’s conspectus of Stevenson’s piano music begins with the first and third numbers from a A Scottish Triptych with the Norse Elegy sandwiched between them. I found the first piece of the Triptych the hardest to come to terms with. Some of the music’s progress is harsh and dissonant: it feels that is has been hacked out of Highland granite. Yet, other moments in this ‘wailing for the dead’ create a sense of magic and wonder. This Keening Sang [not ‘song’ as in the booklet] for a Makar was dedicated to the masterly, but now largely overlooked Scottish composer Francis George Scott (1880-1958). Where recalled, he is best known for some of his 300-plus songs. Scott was part of the Scottish Renaissance along with writers Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir and William Soutar. Ronald Stevenson has included a quotation from Scott’s song, ‘St Brendan’s Graveyard: Isle of Barra’ (Jean Lang).
The second ‘panel’ of the Triptych was a ‘Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid’. This was included in Volume 1 of this series. The ‘Chorale Pibroch’ (1967) dedicated to the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (1911-96). His poems are like Stevenson’s music in that he fuses diverse elements, including Scottish traditions, with a deep understanding of European history, literature, and (socialist) politics. His poetry has been translated into English by several hands, including the poet himself. Sorley MacLean lived within sight and sound of the sea on the island of Raasay, near Skye.
Ronald Stevenson has used ‘extended piano techniques’ with glissandi played directly on the strings. There are pipers’ drones and Scotch Snaps. A rhythmical allusion to ‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’ is heard, but uses an original (by Stevenson) melody, ‘Pibroch: Calum Salum’s Salute to the Seals’ written for the Highland bagpipes. The Chorale Pibroch is quite a harsh piece in places, but sometimes expresses the magical, mist-covered coasts and hills where ‘we in dreams behold the Hebrides’
Enthusiasts of Edvard Grieg will recognise a well-kent tune in the Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard (1976-79). Lookout for a very stylised ‘take’ on the opening of the A minor Piano Concerto. Equally subtle is a reference to the opening bars of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Stevenson takes these two theme-ettes and creates a set of variations which vacillate between tranquil and ‘tormented’. The title refers to the late wife of the Norwegian sculptor, physician and friend of Percy Grainger, Kaare Nygaard. (This work’s title is printed throughout with only one ‘a’ in Nygaard. Is this deliberate or an error?)
Two works that seem to nod towards Percy Grainger’s piano music are the Barra Flyting Toccata and the Toccata-Reel: ‘The High Road to Linton’. The word ‘flyting’ refers to a stylised ‘debate’ between men/women of letters, who delight in being more and more abusive towards each other’s poetic and literary abilities or lack of them. But they are usually the best of friends! Stevenson’s Toccata is full of life, features boogie-woogie riffs and complex counterpoint. The Toccata-Reel is based on an old Scottish fiddle melody which Stevenson takes, and twists and turns it to his own ends by using it as a basis for a short but vivacious set of variations. Linton is a village in Peeblesshire where Ronald Stevenson spent much of his life and wrote a large proportion of his music.
Kenneth Hamilton (in the liner notes) overplays the Brigadoon qualities of Frank Merrick’s Hebridean Seascape, arranged here for solo piano by Ronald Stevenson. This is an impressive panorama by any standards. I concede that it has all the attributes of a film score. But there is not really a sprig of heather or a tartan ‘bunnet’ to be seen amongst the Thalbergian ‘sea-spray’ arpeggio decorations. The musical onomatopoeia describing the seagulls may be a wee bitty o’er the top, but overall the piece works well, without being ‘kailyard’. Think Cornish Rhapsody (Hubert Bath) and the listener will not go far wrong. The original music is the slow movement of Merrick’s Piano Concerto No.2 (1936?). This can be heard as written on NIMBUS NI8820-25. The complete concerto (along with No.1) is available on YouTube, however, I do hope that one day it will be issued in a new CD version.
Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune” is a delightful piece that should be in the repertoire of every Scottish pianist: it would make a splendid encore. Based on a jazz-inspired transformation of Purcell’s melody, this music is a moody, smoky little work that captures our attention. Stevenson wrote this in 1974 but has tinkered with it over the years.
In the same vein is the A Threepenny Sonatina: Homage to Kurt Weill based on popular tunes from Kurt Weill’s legendary The Threepenny Opera. The main tune used is ‘Mac the Knife’, but other numbers from the opera (‘Pirate Jenny’, ‘Shadow March’) and contemporary German dance band effects filter across the pages of this score. Kenneth Hamilton, in the liner notes, suggests that this is a whimsical work. I disagree. I feel that it sometimes sad, occasionally humorous, but typically ironic and sometimes sarcastic I tone.
Everyone seems to have written a work on DSCH. Not least Ronald Stevenson himself, who made his massive, 85-minute-long Passacaglia on DSCH. Here he is at it again with a short Recitative and Air destined for Shostakovich’s 70th Birthday ‘festschrift’ in 1976. Alas, the Russian died during August 1975, not quite making the ‘big 7-O’. It is a lugubrious piece, that nods towards Bach at several points.
The transcription of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod (Come sweet death) BWV 478 is perfect. It was created in 1991 to celebrate the ‘birthday’ of Ferruccio Busoni on 1 April 1866. Stevenson takes Leopold Stokowski’s ‘hyper-romantic’ orchestral version and makes a quixotic setting, whilst retaining the depth of the original tune.
The ‘Hornpipe’ conflates two pieces of that title by Purcell. The ‘hard edged harmonies’ of this piece pushes it far from the composer’s original intention. Forty years later, the Three Grounds (after Purcell) appeared. The originals were for string consort. Stevenson has made a captivating transcription here. It is as if they were created for the modern piano. The tunes are introspective and quite moody. The middle number (in Eb minor) is timeless: it is a truly gorgeous miniature. The concluding ‘allegretto’ is wistful rather than profound. Purcell fans will be aghast, but I would rather listen to Stevenson’s transcription of these ‘Grounds’ than the originals. The Purcell/Stevenson ‘Toccata’ was an early work, written in 1955. The composer has modestly[!] described it as ‘a very fine transcription which is respectful and newly individual; traditional and exploratory ... musicological ... and inventive – Yes! It works well.’ The original music may or may not be by Purcell. It was once thought to have come from Bach’s pen. Whatever, it is a vibrant piece is ideally suited to the concert grand.
The final Purcell transcription (and work on this CD) is the gorgeous The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) taken from the opera Dido and Aeneas. Stevenson has recast this utterly romantic piece with ‘spread chords’ and subtle inner voices perfectly complementing the unforgettably beautiful original melody.
I have given the titles as presented in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music (ed. Scott-Sutherland, Toccata Press, 2005). I notice that there are several discrepancies between these catalogue entries and the liner notes track listings. I have also included the dates of each work, derived from this catalogue and the Ronald Stevenson webpage, where appropriate. I guess that I am disappointed that this information is not always included. Certainly, a few are given in the text, but I would expect to see them all. Not everyone will have Scott-Sutherland’s Symposium to hand. And I guess that the titles of each work should be standardised. For example, it is important to know (at a glance) that the first and third tracks are from Stevenson’s important collection A Scottish Triptych. I accept that this is cited in the text, if not the track listing.
The liner notes include a ten-page essay by the pianist. There is a short biography of the performer and notes about each work. For some reason this is not in order of performance. The booklet and CD features a moody picture of ‘somewhere’ (probably Scotland, but it doesn’t say). The pages of my booklet were badly cut, with the print very nearly disappearing off the top of the page.
I cannot fault the wonderful performance by Kenneth Hamilton of these works. The recording is always clear and bright. The entire programme is a subtle balance between original music and arrangements which well-reflects Stevenson’s achievement. This is the second volume of piano music released by Prima Facie. I had the privilege of reviewing the first volume for MusicWeb International during the spring of 2017. I stated there that I hoped this was the start of a major edition of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music (original and arrangements). It has been 18 months. A glance at catalogue included in the above-mentioned Symposium indicates that there is still much to do. Listeners ought to note the ‘competing’ survey of Stevenson’s piano music played by Christopher Guild on the Toccata (TOCC0272 and TOCC0388 - review). I have not heard Volume 1 of this release. Add to this is Murray McLachlan’s three-CD survey on Divine Arts DDA21372 (review
review).There is now beginning to be a little bit of overlap in recorded repertoire. That is not a problem, but I hope that one of these pianists finishes the job! And that right soon: none of us are getting any younger!