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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]
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

This CD opens with a song of hope. The African Twi-Tune was written when Ronald Stevenson was Senior Lecturer in Music at Cape Town University between the years 1963 and 1965. This was during the apartheid years and shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Stevenson was appalled by this political system.

This piece is a combination of the Bantu National Hymn, ‘God Bless Africa’ with the Afrikaans Song ‘The Call of South Africa’. In fact, in this work these tunes are played ‘simultaneously.’ Apparently, Stevenson was surprised that these two hymns with opposed aspirations ‘fitted together so well’: it was, for him, a symbolic resolution to the ‘tensions and strife he witnessed’. The title Twi-Tune is a definite nod to Percy Grainger’s idiosyncratic use of the English language. Finally, the current South African National Anthem is a hybrid featuring new words in several languages and includes extracts from these two old songs.

The longest and most profound work here is Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of Percy Grainger’s Hill Song No. 1 composed in 1901 for wind band.  Stevenson’s ‘take’ on this piece is more a commentary than a literal reworking. The liner notes remind the listener that Grainger was inspired to write this piece ‘by the soul shaking hill-scapes’ which he witnessed during a three day hike in Argyllshire; he said, ‘wildness and fierceness were the qualities in life and nature that I prized the most and wished to express in music’. As Rob Barnett in his review of this CD has pointed out, neither Grainger original, nor Stevenson’s transcription is an ‘example of cod-tartan Scottishry.’ Formally, the work is written with a ‘stream of consciousness’ configuration rather than any conventional formal structures. I certainly enjoyed this piece. I have not heard Grainger’s original for many years (it is on my to-do list for 2020!) For me, it does conjure images of the Scottish Highlands in their awe-inspiring majesty and beauty, with intimations of brutal history deployed for good measure. This is not a ‘shortbread tin’ portrait but a great and profound work. 

Sounding Strings was inspired by Celtic folksong. It must be recalled that although Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire his mother and father were Welsh and Scottish respectively and Celtic muse came naturally to him.  Originally conceived for clarsach, the Celtic harp, Sounding Strings is also playable on the concert harp and, as here, on the piano.  The piece features fourteen songs from all parts of the Celtic world including Cornwall and Brittany.  The reader would not thank me if I listed all these tunes, however, taking my lead from Rob Barnett’s review, I note some highlights. I enjoyed the Hebridean Dance Song, ‘The Cockle-gatherer’ with its jaunty gait. Stevenson created evocative transcriptions of the extremely well-known ‘Londonderry Air’, ‘The Ash Grove’ and the ‘caressingly’ played ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’, without ever descending into sheer sentimentality. The ‘La Basse-Breton’ calls for the pianist to ‘knock on the piano lid’: it is an effective little conceit. Finally, the powerful tune ‘Ben Dorain’ was later used as the basis of the composer’s massive choral symphony In Praise of Ben Dorain premiered in Glasgow during 2008. This is a major work that demands a CD release. A recording of the BBC broadcast is available on YouTube.

Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic mindset is obvious in the Chinese Folk-Song Suite and the Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite, both composed in 1965.  The first of these suites showcases the common musical heritage shared between Scotland and China. It makes use of pentatonic and hexatonic scales. ‘Pentatonic’ is a five-note scale that corresponds to the black notes on the piano (it can be transposed) and ‘hexatonic’ is a scale of 6 notes in the octave rather than the eight commonly used in the Western musical tradition. Stevenson has culled the tunes from the Archive of the Shanghai Conservatoire of Music and the book Die Musikkultur Chinas by Grigoriĭ Schneerson.  The titles of the five pieces are evocative of Chinese culture and art. ‘The Washer Woman and Flower Girl’ begins the set, followed by ‘A Song for New Year’s Day.’ There is a ‘War Widow’s Lament’ and an image of a ‘Beautiful Fresh Flower’. The final piece is the ‘Song of the Crab Fisher’. This suite is not sentimental tat: this is no Albert Ketèlbey vision of the Far East.  It reflects the composer’s theory that ‘different musics of the world are linked’. The liner notes explain that Percy Grainger had explored some of this material: in fact, Stevenson’s ‘Beautiful Fresh Flower’ is very similar to Grainger’s arrangement. 

Another collection of folk material inspired the Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite. It was J. H. Kwabena Nketia’s Folksongs of Ghana which Stevenson discovered when he was working in Cape Town. There are three movements here: the rhythmically fluid ‘Song of Valour’, the simply stated but subtle ‘Consolation’ and the concluding ‘Leopard Dance.’  Christopher Guild suggests that that the call and answer format of this final piece may reflect the ‘‘waulking’ songs of the Outer Hebrides.’ These songs were traditionally sung by woman as they ‘waulk’ (cleanse and soften) woollen cloth. One woman sings the verse and the rest join in for the chorus. Interestingly ‘Leopard Dance’ is the ‘other way round’; the opening statement is loud, the echo correspondingly quiet.

‘Bonny at Morn’ is a sumptuous setting of the well-kent Borders folksong. The context of the song is a lullaby, but also ‘bemoans’ the idleness of the lad and lassie o’ the hoose. The tune features stylistic clichés from both the Northumberland and Scottish traditions. Stevenson has transcribed this song in two stanzas, rather than reflect the original three. It is truly lovely.

Percy Grainger would seem to be the inspiration for the final two pieces on this CD: the Barra Flyting Toccata and the Toccata-Reel: ‘The High Road to Linton’. The latter is based an old Scottish fiddle tune. This tune is subjected to a short set of variations which explore increasingly complex pianistic figurations.  There is a ‘Chopinesque’ coda to this piece provided by the Swedish musician John Fritzell, who was staying at Stevenson’s home. He felt that the piece ended a little too abruptly. Fortunately, the composer approved the change and incorporated it into the score. West Linton is a small village in Peeblesshire in the Scottish Borders. Ronald Stevenson lived here for many years at Townfoot House and wrote much of his music there.

The term ‘Flyting’ is a literary convention describing a debate between men/women of letters who allow their mutual antagonism to descend into stylised abuse - even if they are the best of friends! Stevenson’s ‘take’ on this is full of exciting stuff.  It is vivacious, eclectic and showcases boogie-woogie riffs ‘flyting’ against complex counterpoint. Maybe it is not evocative of the ‘wild and lonely Isle of Barra’ as the title implies, but it is great fun.

All these works are claimed to be ‘first recordings’ except for Hill Tune No.1. Whether the ‘High Road to Linton’ and the ‘Barra Flyting Toccata’ are premiere performances, as stated in the liner notes, depends on the precise release date of Kenneth Hamilton’s second volume of Stevenson’s piano music. (Review)

I cannot fault the brilliant playing by Christopher Guild. He clearly has a great sympathy for Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic musical style. The playing is always luminous, often moving and never sentimental. The liner notes, written by the pianist are excellent. They present a major essay length discussion of the music and composer, complete with useful footnotes. The evocative CD cover shows Ronald Stevenson at the fifteenth century Cille Choirill church, Roybridge, in the Scottish Highlands.

This is an outstanding further exploration of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. I look forward to succeeding volumes of this project with considerable enthusiasm.

Footnote: Christopher Guild has recently informed me that Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music, Volume. 4 will be released on 1 February 2020, and Volume 5 will be recorded at the end of May.  The former, although it doesn't yet have a title, could well be 'Songs Without Words' as it is almost exclusively song and opera transcription: Paderewski, Stevenson himself, Stephen Foster, Ivor Novello, Coleridge-Taylor, Bridge, Rachmaninov. The latter is to be purely a transcription album and is expected to include music by Bernard van Dieren, Bernard Stevens, Delius and either John Bull or Purcell.

John France

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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