Robin STEVENS (b. 1958)
John Bradbury (clarinet), David Jones (piano), Sarah Miller (flute and alto flute), Helen Peller (bassoon), Richard Simpson (oboe), Janet Simpson (piano), Lindsay Stoker (French horn), John Turner (recorders)
rec. 2019, St. Thomas’s Church, Stockport, UK
DIVINE ART DDA25194 [41:58 + 46:34]
First, a few words about the composer will be helpful. 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 six large scale musical works composed in a ‘contemporary idiom.’
Stevens’ work would seem to balance traditional musical language with a more ‘modernist’ voice. He enjoys writing for ‘Cinderella’ instruments and ensembles which have a ‘low profile’ such as a euphonium duet, bassoon trio and tuba quartet. Major works include a Fantasy Sonata for violin and piano, Mourning into Dancing for symphony orchestra and Brass Odyssey for brass band. He is currently working on a Cello Concerto and a Clarinet Quintet.
I struggled to contextualise this new two-CD set of his music. It is not possible to listen to it chronologically as, except for three numbers, no dates are given. Bearing in mind that Stevens has been composing for many years, this music could have been written anytime since the mid nineteen-seventies; there is no way of knowing. Presumably, the composer has a rough idea when he wrote each work. That said, the lack of dates is a common omission on CDs these days.
I am not going to comment on all twenty-two works on this album; I’ll just provide a few general thoughts and a brief look at what to me were highlights. What I do recommend is listening to this album in short sections. It does not benefit the listener or composer to through-listen to 25 tracks (22 works) one after another without a break.
Robin Stevens does give a clue to the stylistic background into which the works fall. There are, he writes, three categories: songs without words, character pieces and ‘fledgling tone poems.’ Alas he does not say which ones are which.
The musical language of Stevens’ work is difficult to gauge as well. The listener does not know what to expect as they explore each track. The soundscapes vary from what I call ‘Suburban Sunday’ music of the kind that Philip Lane provided in his piano suite Leisure Lanes, through to a piece that pushes towards the avant-garde of several decades ago.
More demanding pieces include the lovely soliloquy for solo oboe Conversations, the Uneasy Dialogue (or is it an argument?) for clarinet and piano and the modernist O Brave New World. This latter piece makes use of extended techniques, such as playing on the cello’s bridge, artificial harmonics and flutter-tonguing on the flute. It is the most advanced piece on this album, and one of the best. Equally ‘expressionistic’ in mood is the Clarinetissimo! I thought that this would be jazz-infused, but discover it is a good old-fashioned piece of ‘contemporary’ music. Equally ‘mod’ is the bewitching Coquette for flute with its ‘fleet-footed’ music balancing more lyrical moments. It is satisfying to hear these ‘spicy’ numbers after some of the drivelling and anodyne music that some composers write these days.
Strangely, the promise of the Variations of a Twelve-Note Theme does not come to pass as this is an easy-going piece that owes absolutely nothing to Humphrey Searle or Elisabeth Lutyens. Examples of the lighter touch are the opening Oceanic Lullaby, An Interrupted Waltz and the wayward Concert Rondo. This latter piece is given in two versions: recorder and oboe, both with piano.
Early music echoes fill Pandora’s Box, which is scored for recorders, bassoon and cello. At nearly eight minutes, it is the most substantial piece on these two CDs. It would make a good film score for some Tudor drama, except when jazz takes over and it gets ‘into the groove’. I have never heard a cool, jazzy recorder before. Great stuff.
The Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe is not ‘shortbread tin’ music, but a truly contemplative little number that captures the numinous quality of the Hebrides. Still in Scotland, the Berceuse is a like a Celtic mother calling to her exiled children from across the seas -a really moving piece. Finally, sometimes ‘Les Six’ from France seem to oversee the stylistic proceedings with pieces such as Sweet Soufflé.
The liner notes present most of the relevant information required to enjoy this diverse and variable selection of wind music. The descriptions of each piece could have been more detailed, as they are all (I think) premieres and therefore unknown quantities. The usual biographies of the composer and the soloists are included, as well a series of photos of all the participants.
I cannot fault the sound quality here and the playing in every case is enthusiastic, committed and technically convincing.
This new release from Divine Art is typically very enjoyable but please note my caveats above. I do feel that a little more planning might have improved the value of this excellent introduction to Robin Stevens’ music.
Oceanic Lullaby for oboe and piano [2:36]
Concert Rondo for descant recorder and piano [4:09]
Sicilienne for Gillian for clarinet and piano (2000) [5:15]
O Brave New World for flute and cello [6:26]
Three Epigrams for bassoon and piano (1994) – I. Foreboding [0:38] II. Gentle Lament [0:36] III. Clockwork Toy [1:15]
A Soldier’s Prayer for horn and piano (2014) [4:21]
Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe [2:42]
Pandora’s Box for recorders, bassoon and cello [7:45]
Variations on a Twelve-Note Theme for clarinet and piano [2:14]
Sound and Silence for solo flute/alto flute [2:51]
Suite écossaise – jig for descant recorder and guitar [1:53]
Waltz for Pierrot for solo bassoon [2:19]
Grief’s Portrait for horn and piano [3:30]
At a Tangent for treble recorder and cello [4:54]
Clarinetissimo! for solo clarinet [3:20]
Suite écossaise – Berceuse for flute and guitar [2:10]
Concert Rondo for oboe and piano [4:16]
Contemplation for bass recorder and cello [4:38]
Coquette for solo flute [1:43]
An Uneasy Dialogue for clarinet and piano [5:46]
Conversations for solo oboe [3:51]
An Interrupted Waltz for descant recorder and piano [3:46]
Sweet Soufflé for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon [3:02]