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Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Piano Music - Volume 2
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
No recording details given

Although born a few miles down the road from me in Blackburn, Ronald Stevenson, the son of a Scottish father and a Welsh mother, soon aligned with the Scottish side of his family, and eventually moved to Scotland a few years after graduating with distinction in 1948. He was a noted teacher, indeed Kenneth Hamilton was one of his students, he will, however, forever be associated with just one work, the Passacaglia on DSCH, the mammoth piano work which for many years was the only music by Stevenson that was available on disc, I remember well the old John Ogden LP version. So, it is good that this music is his piano music, the instrument he will always be known for, as this series by Kenneth Hamilton and that by Christopher Guild for Toccata both purport to be complete editions, with both series so far offering the listener premiere recordings.

Never one to court the current fashion, Stevenson follows in the footsteps of the great pianist/composers of the past, especially in the way he was prepared to arrange other composer’s music to fit his own ends. This disc shows just how adept an arranger he was, with eight of the pieces presented here being arrangements or ‘variations upon’, and that is no bad thing, as Stephenson has a great gift for making this music his own. That being said, the first five pieces are original compositions of Stevenson; indeed, this is a well-structured disc that gives us a good mix of original music and music based on that of others.

Opening with Keening Sang for a Makar we have Stevenson at his most dissonant, music which has a hard edge and is quite cold at times, this is about as modernist as the composer gets, certainly on this disc, but persevere and you win find music that both charms and entertains; the second piece is a case in point, Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard with its lilting themes shows Stevenson’s admiration for Grieg. Beginning as if played on distant drums, Chorale Pibroch for Sorley Maclean, which along with the first track on the disc forms the outer movements of A Scottish Triptych, the central piece being found on volume one, with this piece showing his allegiance to traditional Scottish music. This is clearly evident, if not more so, in the next two short pieces, his Toccata-Reel “The High Road to Linton” which is a clear celebration of the reel, whilst Barra Flyting Toccata is a celebration of all things Scottish. We have to jump a few tracks for his next original piece, yet another based upon DSCH, but this time no where near as long. This six-minute piece, for me, lack the originality and fervour of the Passacaglia on DSCH but is still an interesting piece.

We then come to the first of the pieces based upon the music of others beginning with a piano arrangement of Frank Merrick’s Hebridean Seascape, a brooding tone picture which is just missing the north Atlantic gales. This is followed by the first of Stevenson’s pieces based upon the music of Henry Purcell, his Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune” presents the theme well before jazzing it up. Stevenson composed his Fifth Sonatina in 1987/88, giving it the title A Threepenny Sonatina: Homage to Kurt Weill, with the result being an engaging jazzy romp through some of the operas main themes, anyone looking for an overture to the original need go no further; it brought a smile to my face and I imagine I will to a lot of others. Stevenson’s arrangement of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod is in fact an arrangement of an arrangement, as he actually took Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement, and then sets that for piano, quite effectively, especially in the way that Stevenson builds up the intensity of this short piece.

The remaining works are all arrangements of Henry Purcell starting with the spritely Hornpipe, in which two tunes are joined together to good effect. Given individual tracks, the Three Grounds are originally for strings with Stevenson taking each of these pieces of concert music and arranging them for piano. The three are all wonderful in their own way, although the lyrical nature of the second Grounds makes it stand out the most for me. The most substantial of the Purcell arrangements here is the Toccata, although there is still a question of the original authorship, the work having appeared in an 1894 complete edition of Bach’s music, I must say that, whoever the original composer, Stevenson makes the most of the music and emphasises parts that allude to both Bach and Purcell. With the final work on this disc The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell), there is no question of authorship, coming as it does from Dido and Aeneas. Here we return to the doleful sound of the second Ground, this is a beautiful arrangement, one in which Stevenson shows great sympathy for the subject, with the result being truly wonderful and all too short.

This is a wonderful disc of late twentieth century piano music that any pianophile should love, especially when the playing is so good. Kenneth Hamilton also writes the excellent booklet notes giving a great personal insight into the composer, his music and playing style. The recorded sound is clear and bright, yet it also has a warmth and a natural feel, making this a very welcome addition to my collection. This disc is not just for devotees of British music, but will suit all lovers of piano music, highly recommended.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: John France

Keening Sang for a Makar: In memoriam Francis George Scott (1959) [7:19]
Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard (1976-79) [6:01]
Chorale Pibroch for Sorley Maclean (1967) [6:11]
Toccata-Reel “The High Road to Linton” (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 on DSCH (1974) [5:49]
J.S. BACH (1685-1750)/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]

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