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Robin STEVENS (b. 1958)
String Quintet in C minor, (1980-81, rev. 2018) [29:31]
String Quartet No. 1 in one movement (2008) [31:01]
String Quartet No. 2 ‘Three Portraits’ (2011) [15:33]
Behn Quartet
Timothée Botbol (cello 2)
rec. 2019, St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London
DIVINE ART DDA25203 [76:20]

I recently reviewed a CD of Robin Stevens’s music for wind ensemble. I noted that his compositions were a subtle and effective fusion of traditional musical language and a more modernist voice. It is good to have the opportunity to listen to three important chamber works for string ensemble, written over a 30-year period. I am beholden to the composer for the liner notes, which helped develop my thoughts.

The earliest work on this CD is the two-cello String Quintet, written in 1980-1981. This was Stevens’s first major composition. The work was revised some 37 years later in preparation for this recording. An almost pastoral introduction leads into the main Allegro molto moderato, effectively written in the good old-fashioned sonata form. The progress of this music ranges far and wide from the introduction. There is excitement, but typically this is quite relaxed music that concludes with some fetching recollections of the opening theme. The scherzo is vibrant and jazzy in its effect, although the trio section is more reserved. This movement leads quietly into the adagio which cleverly juxtaposes music that is bluesy, sometimes deeply moving, and an anything-but-academic fugue based on a motif derived from the movement’s opening idea. It is an impressive structure. The finale once again uses the modified sonata form to present contrasting themes designed to bring this remarkable and absorbing Quintet to a conclusion. Interestingly, the composer writes that this early score made numerous references to early 20th century music, but also included several fingerprints that were to characterise his mature style. It is not necessary to hunt them down.

The lengthy String Quartet No. 1 was written after Stevens recovered from a long illness. It is stylistically more advanced than the early Quintet. The composer writes that he sought coherence by using a limited number of musical ideas. These have been subject to complex contrapuntal development. The harmonic language is deliberately acerbic, with considerable use of dissonant intervals rather than concords. The progress of the quartet is dominated by slow and fast sections succeeding each other. Lyrical music does abound in this work but tends to be confined to individual instruments rather than complete segments of the work. In the rapid portions, instruments often play diverse dynamics and signatures to the remainder of the ensemble. This leads to a sense of dislocation and alienation. In the Quartet’s coda, the musical texture seems to be simplified, with a welcome, if surprising, unison section. The work ends dramatically. I enjoyed every minute of this long, but well-structured journey. It is a work to be relished, despite its modernist aesthetic.

The final essay on this CD is the String Quartet No. 2 subtitled ‘Three Portraits’. The ethos of this work is effectively three character studies followed by a short epilogue. These three traits are Impulsive One, God-Seeker and Arguer. They are imagined as belonging to a family group. Once again, I think that Stevens has sought to create a work that is inspired by unity in diversity. This means that each movement is quite definitely individual in its aspect but is tied together by familial bonds. These qualities are well represented in each movement. The rapid impulsive music balances hyperactivity with moments of silence: mood changes are unexpected and dramatic. Dance music and abrasive harmonic structures are capriciously juxtaposed. God-Seeker, on the other hand, is slower and more meditative. The music is based by a chorale heard at the start. This is worked out as a set of variations. The Arguer movement is dominated by dance music rather than naked aggression. Contrapuntal devices are used extensively here. The Epilogue draws all three characters together. This is, after all, one big, if not always happy family. The God-Seeker seems to have the final word in these thoughtful bars.

Robin Stevens was born in Wales in 1958. He studied at Dartington College, the Royal Northern College of Music and finally at Manchester and Birmingham Universities. At the end of his education, he was appointed Musical Director and Pastoral Worker at St Paul’s Church, York. For three years he was Head of Music at a comprehensive school on the West Riding of Yorkshire. Sadly, he suffered a debilitating illness which meant that he could not work full-time for many years. Restored to health, Stevens prepared for his PhD in Composition at Manchester University. It consisted of several large-scale musical works composed in a contemporary idiom.

The Behn Quartet (with Timothée Botbol on cello in the Quintet) play these exceptionally interesting chamber works creatively and satisfyingly. I cannot fault the excellent, clear sound quality of this disc. The liner notes, as I noted, are most helpful and ought to be read. There are the usual biographies of the composer and performers. The pulsating sleeve art, The Turbulents by Iain Andrews, is a unique take on much of the music on this CD.

This is a splendid recording, enjoyable from the first note to last. The music is well-written, often profound and always interesting. Robin Stevens’s style is characterised by “Beethovenian motivic development; rhapsodic, modal lyricism; bold, dramatic gestures; tangy harmonies; intricate counterpoint; and unashamedly direct, open-hearted expression”. It is a fascinating and essential mix.

John France
 
 
Performers
Kate Oswin (violin), Alicia Berendse (violin), Ana Teresa de Braga e Alves (viola), Ghislaine McMullin (cello)

 

 



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