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Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Piano Music – Volume 4
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 2017/19, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, UK

When record labels begin a series of albums covering the works of a composer, I always worry. Over my lifetime I have seen several of these projects started and then suddenly the enthusiasm or the investment dries up. With Christopher Guild’s survey of the complete piano music of Ronald Stevenson we seem to be on solid ground. Volume 1 was released in 2017 and since then three further albums have hit the streets at regular intervals. The pianist has told me that Volume 5 is ‘on the stocks’ and will feature transcriptions of music by Henry Purcell, Bernard van Dieren, Frederick Delius and Bernard Stevens.

In Volume 4, Christopher Guild has included transcriptions of opera and a variety of songs, both ‘popular’ and ‘art’ and a single original work. A paradigm for appreciating Ronald Stevenson’s music is to understand that his style is an amalgam of Scottish inspiration (despite the fact that he was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1928), a profound understanding of contemporary Western musical developments as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of indigenous music from around the world. Importantly, Stevenson was equally at home in making transcriptions of other composers' music as he was in producing original scores. There is no genre or style of music that was beneath him.

The CD opens with an arrangement of some extracts from pianist, composer and briefly Prime Minister of Poland, Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s (1860–1941) only opera Manru. The plot of the work concerns a village girl Ulana and documents her love for the gipsy Manru. Stevenson has created a suite of four pieces. The ‘Introduction and Gipsy March’ reflects on Ulana’s mother’s fear for her daughter as she plans to elope with Manru. The ‘Gipsy Song’ is taken from a violin solo, where the fiddler Jogu attempts to call Manru back to the nomadic life. The ‘Lullaby’, sung to Ulana’s child (was Manru the father?) is followed by a Polish national dance, the ‘Cracovienne’. Listen out for the ‘bagpipe’ drones here. Not, apparently to ‘Scotify’ the Polish music, but to generate a mood of rusticity. The added value of this attractive suite is quite simply hearing music that would have been largely lost if Stevenson had not turned his pianistic interest towards it. I understand that a recording of the opera was made in 2001. There is also a YouTube performance of the complete opera.

An ‘original’ ‘Song without Words’ follows. I will not spoil the narrative of this work’s genesis, save to say that Martin Anderson, the founder and executive producer of Toccata Records called the work into being in 1987 as a birthday gift to a lady. It is a special little piece that includes the obligatory ‘Happy Birthday’ tune as well as some delicious, slightly dark-hued harmonies. The whole story is given in the liner notes.

Another charming operatic transcription derives from Gustave Charpentier’s (1860-1956) masterpiece Louise (1900). Stevenson’s short ‘Romance’ paraphrases the love duet at the beginning of Act III. Here, the lovers sing of their happiness and love for each other in their new pied à terre in Paris. This transcription was dedicated to the composer’s wife, Marjorie.

Every wannabe poet thinks that they can write Haiku by the dozen. The reality is that most will be rubbish and never match up to the great exponents of this literary device developed by Matsuo Bashō and his ‘school’. Stevenson wrote a song cycle in 1971 setting several haiku in translation. In 2006 he transcribed these songs for solo piano. They were first heard in this arrangement at a Ronald Stevenson Society event on the picturesque Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde Estuary. This pleasingly textured music makes use of the pentatonic (five note) and heptatonic (seven note) scales. These reflect the traditional number of syllables in a haiku (5-7-5). Each piece is given a typically gnomic title ending with a concluding ‘Epilogue.’ One of the most captivating moments is a short interlude: The Blossoming Cherry (Aubade). The liner notes explain that Stevenson had the texts of the Haikus printed in the score. It is a pity that these poems have not been included in the liner notes.

The main event on this disc are the three published volumes of L’art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano composed between 1980 and 1988. They are modelled on Swiss-born composer-pianist Sigismond Thalberg’s (1812–71), L’art du chant appliqué au piano written in 1853–63.

The present work is a collection of transcriptions, arrangements, paraphrases and reinventions of a wide range of songs. Most of these were ‘popular’ when Stevenson was a boy and many would have been heard at amateur recitals, pierhead concerts and in church halls. Examples include an idiomatic setting of Frank Bridge’s (1879-1941) ‘Go not Happy Day’ where the elder composer’s swirling piano accompaniment has been retained with the exuberant melody skilfully interposed. It is my favourite number in this set. Ivor Novello’s (1893-1951) once greatly loved songs ‘We’ll gather lilacs’ and ‘Fly home, little heart’ are given the full cocktail pianist treatment. Stephen Foster’s reputation lies mainly with a few songs, including those here, and Stevenson has imbued magic into them. Arias by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) from Les Huguenots and Sigmund Romberg’s (1887-1951) Maytime are characteristically well wrought. Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s (1875-1912) gorgeous ‘Demande et réponse’ still gets the occasional outing in CD collections of light music. I have a published piano version made by the composer in my piano stool. It is a truly lovely piece, that would bring a tear to the eye. And who now recalls Maud Valérie White’s (1855-1937) ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving’? This was a once hugely popular song whose magic is recaptured by Stevenson’s arrangement. From start to finish, the three volumes of L’art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano are a pleasure and a delight to listen to. One is always conscious of Ronald Stevenson’s consummate skill at realising other composer’s music into his own medium of piano solo. Every one of these twelve numbers is a gem. The three Foster songs are première performances. I understand that there are other examples of these transcriptions in the catalogue, including Arnold Bax’s ‘The White Peace’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ by Hamilton Harty…

Christopher Guild has taken all these pieces to his heart. As I noted in my review of Volume 3 of this project, he has a clear understanding of, and sympathy with, Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic musical style. The booklet essay, as always, is helpful, interesting and informative. It is written by the present pianist.

I thoroughly enjoyed this latest volume in Christopher Guild’s survey of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. Glancing at the catalogue in Colin Scott-Sutherland’s Symposium (Toccata Press, 2005) on the composer, there are still plenty of piano works to rediscover.

John France

Suite from Paderewski’s Manru (1961): 1. Introduction and Gipsy March [4:22], No.2 Gipsy Song [3:43], No.3 Lullaby [2:56], No.4 Cracovienne [4:07]
Song without Words (1988) [2:12]
Nine Haiku (1971, arr. 2006): No.1 Dedication [1:06], No.2 The Fly [0:50], No.3 Gone Away [2:05], No.4 Nocturne [1:29], No.5 Master and Pupil [0:40], No.6 Spring [1:27], Interlude: The Blossoming Cherry (Aubade) [2:12], No.7 Curfew [1:23], No.8 Hiroshima [0:43], No.9 Epilogue [1:58]
Charpentier: Louise – Romance (c.1970) [3:10]
L’Art Nouveau du chant appliqué au piano (1980–88)
Volume One: No.1 Coleridge-Taylor: Elëanore (1980) [3:53], No.2 White: So We’ll go no more a-roving (1980) [5:52], No.3 Meyerbeer: Romance: Plus blanche que la plus blanche hermine (Les Huguenots) (1975) [5:42], No.4 Rachmaninov: In the Silent Night (1982) [3:17]; No.5 Bridge: Go not, happy day! (1980) [2:00]
Volume Two: No.1 Novello: Fly Home, Little Heart (?1980) [3:03], No.2 Novello: We’ll Gather Lilacs (1980) [4:23], No.3 Coleridge-Taylor: Demande et Réponse (1981) [1:28], No.4 Romberg: Will you remember? (Maytime) (1988) [1:15]
Volume Three: No.1 Foster: Jeanie with the light brown hair (1980) [2:44], No.2 Come where my love lies dreaming (1980) [4:27], No.3 Beautiful Dreamer (1980) [2:49]

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