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Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Piano Music - Volume 4
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 2019, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton

Christopher Guild has received strong reviews for previous releases in this Toccata Classics series of the piano music of Ronald Stevenson (review ~ review ~ review ~ review) and it shows no sign of stopping just yet.

The present volume concentrates almost exclusively on Stevenson's transcriptions and arrangements, though the inclusion of his short Song without words is surely apt in the company of so many other Songs without words. One thing that is immediately clear is Stevenson's wide-ranging tastes and interests; he did not look down on music simply because it was unfamiliar or unfashionable. My piano teacher knew Stevenson and had visited him on several occasions and I recall him telling me of Ronald playing pieces by Eduard Silas and others that were equally unfamiliar. Paderewski has perhaps never been an unfamiliar name but it is generally as a pianist that he is remembered rather than as a composer. Some of his piano music is heard occasionally, even the fine Piano Concerto but his opera Manru is hardly known and to my knowledge has not been performed outside of Poland in the last 75 years (I am prepared to be corrected). In preparing this concert suite Stevenson was following in the pioneering footsteps of Liszt who produced high quality arrangements of music that audiences were unlikely to have an opportunity to hear – even by 1961 the age of recording hadn't quite erased the necessity of this kind of piece. The Suite is in four movements but does not otherwise follow the narrative of the plot. The story involves a young maiden running off and marrying Manru, a gypsy leader who ultimately proves faithless. Bands of gypsies, a mysterious dwarf sorcerer (hmm, what does that remind me of?), magic love potions and a love triangle should make this a winner but it has not proved to be. The music is full of colour, from the vibrancy of the gypsy march and the closing Krakowiak, the delicate chromaticism of the lullaby or the nostalgic romance of the gypsy song that tempts Manru away from his love.

Two original works follow. The short Song without words, with its very gentle dissonance, was written for one Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics in 1987 (the bittersweet story behind this work is recounted in the wonderful scholarly notes). In 2006 Stevenson made a piano transcription of his Nine Haiku, a setting of poems of the Bashō school. The songs are based on pentatonic and heptatonic scales reflecting the syllabic structure of the haiku themselves and giving them a delicious blend of oriental and occidental. Stevenson has been skillful in translating these to the keyboard; so successfully I cannot imagine these as songs. I would love to know more about the content of these songs – titles like The fly, Master and pupil or Curfew don't really give much away.

Stevenson's transcription of the celebrated romance Depuis le jour from Charpentier's Louise, is a forerunner of the works included in the collection that dominates this CD – the new art of singing applied to the piano; 'new' compared to the set that had been written by Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) in the 1850s and 60s. Thalberg's set of 24 song and aria transcriptions formalised what romantic composers like Chopin and Mendelssohn had often written – songs without words whether or not they were so named. Like Stevenson he explored outside of the classical realm; Weber, Mozart, Bellini and Donizetti and others are represented but we also find David of the white rock and a neapolitan song Fenesta vascia. Stevenson's set embraces Coleridge-Taylor and Rachmaninov as well as great song writers of Wales and America – Ivor Novello and Stephen Foster. Maude Valerie White's So we'll go no more a-roving struck me straight away; a glorious outpouring of emotion setting a poem by Byron. From this transcription one can well imagine, as one writer noted, White herself at the piano rushing ahead of the singer as she was swept up in the passion of the music. The Meyerbeer Romance is given a heady treatment with a final cadenza and grand ending whilst the setting of Rachmaninov's In the silent night is more subdued than Earl Wild's marvellous though much more embellished transcription. The swirling counter-rhythm of Bridge's Go not, happy day is wonderfully incorporated alongside the vocal line in this gem of a transcription.

In volume two there are two lovely Novello songs. As We'll gather lilacs begins it sounds like we are back to Rachmaninov and indeed Stevenson marks it “in homage to Rachmaninov in his song “Lilacs” and the figuration he employs throughout the verse is based on this song. The chorus is more serene with a triplet accompaniment. The next two songs are relatively straightforward canonic treatments of the melody introducing, in Demande et réponse at least, little hints of dissonace. Volume three is devoted to three songs by Stephen Foster. With each verse Stevenson explores different keyboard textures and decorations, giving the vocal line to different registers creating, in Jeanie with the light brown hair a duet within each verse.

According to the magnificent notes, written by the Christopher Guild, Stevenson's notion of the final form of L'art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano is slightly different to the one recorded here that had been published in 2002. The list now includes songs by Wallace, Balfe and Bax, Leoncavallo and Harty, more Rachmaninov (Spring Waters) and several others; I trust they will appear in a later volume.

I can only echo what other reviewers have said; first rate, brilliant and sympathetic pianism in an album that has huge variety and range.

A fascinating glimpse into Stevenson as transcriber.

Rob Challinor

Previous reviews: John France ~ Stuart Sillitoe

Suite from Paderewski's 'Manru' (1961)[15:08]
Song without words (1988)[2:12]
Nine Haiku (1971 arr. 2006)[13:53]
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956) arr. Ronald STEVENSON
Louise – Romance 'Depuis le jour' (1970)[3:10]
L'art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano (1980-88)
Volume 1
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Elëanore [3:53]
Maude Valérie WHITE (1855-1937) So we'll go no more a-roving [5:52]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864) Romance: Plus blanche que la plus blanche hermine [5:42]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) In the silent night [3:17]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Go not, happy day! [2:00]
Volume 2
Ivor NOVELLO (1893-1951) Fly home, little heart [3:03]
Ivor NOVELLO We'll gather lilacs [4:23]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Hiawatha – Demande et réponse [1:28]
Sigmund ROMBERG (1887-1951) Maytime – will you remember? [1:15]
Volume 3
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864)
Jeanie with the light brown hair [2:44]
Come where my love lies dreaming [4:27]
Beautiful dreamer [2:49]

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