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Ronald STEVENSON (1928–2015)
Piano Music - Volume 5: Transcriptions
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Toccata (1955) [6:45]
Hornpipe (1995) [2:51]
Three Grounds by Henry Purcell (1995) [7:58]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
The Young Pianist’s Delius (1962/c.2005) [13:30]
Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’ (1964, rev. 1975) [6:03]
Bernard van DIEREN (1887-1936)
String Quartet No. 5 (transcribed. c.1948–1987) [34:26]
Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1951) [4:20]; Spring Song of the Birds (1987) [1:28]
The Queen’s Dolour - A Farewell (1959) [3:25]
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 2020/21, The Old Granary Studio, Norfolk, UK

I never realised that nearly a quarter of Ronald Stevenson’s oeuvre consists of transcriptions and arrangements of other composers’ music. This ranges from straightforward note-for-note realisations to epic re-imaginings.  The present CD, which is Volume 5 of an ongoing project to record all Stevenson’s piano works, features music by Henry Purcell, Frederick Delius and Bernard van Dieren. This ranges from the latter’s massive String Quartet No.5 reworked as a “Piano Sonata”, to simplified arrangements of selected tunes incorporated into The Young Pianist’s Delius and some delightful re-imaginings of tunes by Purcell. The entire recital is well-balanced and deserves to be heard, in track order, from start to finish. The hermeneutic for appreciating this music is quite straightforward. The liner notes explain that “Stevenson believed that transcription should be, among other things, about the transcriber making his own mark on the music as an act of homage.” This is apparent in all the works on this CD.

The proceedings open with an arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Toccata, devised in 1955. Stevenson has (modestly!) described it as “a very fine transcription which is respectful and newly individual; traditional and exploratory...musicological...and inventive – Yes! It works well.” For me it recalls Ferruccio Busoni’s take on Bach. This multi-sectioned piece explores a variety of forms, including free polyphony, fugato, improvisation, and recitative. It opens with a flourish and closes “expansively, con gravitas”. Stevenson has thickened up the texture, by many doublings. Next up, is the delightful Hornpipe (1995). The liner notes explain that two tunes are fused here, the lively and slightly hard-edged Hornpipe from Purcell’s Suite No.7 for harpsichord and, the cool, relaxed final movement from his Suite No.6.  In the same year, Ronald Stevenson arranged Three Grounds by Henry Purcell. They were originally written for string consort and are often moody and brooding. Stevenson has given them a good working over: the key structure has been changed, additional contrapuntal melodic lines have been added and parts doubled. The entire “triptych” of Grounds has been realised here for the modern concert grand piano and is a million miles from the original instrumentation and style. Versions for solo violin and guitar were also produced.

For me, The Young Pianist’s Delius is a delightful discovery. This is a collection of ten short pieces based on themes by the elder composer. They are devised for the intermediate piano student. With one or two exceptions, these tunes are well-known from their original incarnations. The album opens with the easy-going dance tune from the Dance Rhapsody No.1. The theme from the orchestral rhapsody Brigg Fair is given a moody treatment. This is followed by a very restrained La Calinda from the opera Koanga. The lovely Serenade from Hassan is quite simply ravishing. No introduction is required to the main theme from On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; it is one of the longer and more technically challenging numbers in this album. Then comes Late Swallows, an arrangement of part of the third movement of Delius’s String Quartet. Brigg Fair is mined once again for the lugubrious Intermezzo. The waltz-like tune from String Quartet is self-explanatory. The penultimate tune is a section of the opening movement of the Violin Sonata No.2. Finally, Ronald Stevenson makes a reflective, melancholy medley of themes from the Song of the High Hills. What he has achieved in his The Young Pianist’s Delius is a judicious pruning back of the “lush orchestral textures of the original, to reveal their essence.” It is a remarkable achievement, which amply reveals Ronald Stevenson as a sympathetic student of Delius’s music.

I loved the Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune”, which is surely an obvious choice for an encore for every Scottish pianist. It is hardly surprising that “the ghost of George Gershwin never seems far away.” Add to that Kurt Weil; there is a touch of 1960s New York nightclub about this music: full of smoke, low lights and sequestered lovers. 

The major event on this disc is the massive transcription of Bernard van Dieren’s String Quartet No.5. Originally written in 1925 for violin, viola, cello and double bass, it was deemed too difficult at early rehearsals, so in 1931, Dieren revised it for a conventional string quartet and it was premiered on 6 March of that year. The Times (13 March 1931, p.12) noted that this quartet “was less abstruse in thought and less complex in manner that his earlier works” which seemingly led to “dryness”. One issue raised was that the music “has sufficient sense of direction and too little variety…” It was the 1931 version that Ronald Stevenson transcribed. He began work on the score in 1948, while still a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He revisited it over the years, especially during the van Dieren Centenary in 1987, when it was completed.  The liner notes give a detailed analysis of all six-movements, so I will not repeat it here. The overall impact on the listener is of considerable interest, a polished craftsmanship, a touch of verbosity and finally, a logical, if somewhat open-ended, structure. I was particularly impressed with the slow movement, Adagio cantando, which is serious, introverted, and quite beautiful. The entire work is friendly, contemplative and polished. The full title of this arrangement is String Quartet No. 5 (transcribed as a Piano Sonata). It is "dedicated to the van Dieren scholar Alastair Chisholm by the transcriber, his friend." The result can be seen as the “Piano Sonata” that Ronald Stevenson never wrote.  I have now listened to the string quartet exemplar, which has been conveniently uploaded to YouTube.

Two other short van Dieren song transcriptions are included: Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1951) and Spring Song of the Birds (1987). The first, to an anonymous Elizabethan text, is exemplified by chordal progressions that almost make the listener drop off to sleep. It is purely magical in effect. The second song, which originally had a text by King James VI and I, is a spring song that is really a little toccata which has a lot of bounce provided by complex figurations.

The final track on this absorbing CD is Stevenson’s take on The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) taken from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. He has embellished the beautiful melody and bass part and turned this wonderful aria into a perfectly stated, Romantic piece that defies time and musical period.

Christopher Guild has created a well-considered and perfectly poised recital. The liner notes are excellent, providing a detailed discussion and analysis of the music. That said, the reader can omit some of the more technical comments and still gain a great understanding of the music. The sound reproduction is superb.

The Purcell numbers can be heard performed by Kenneth Hamilton (PRIMA FACIE PFCD 107) and Murray McLachlan (Divine Art dda 21372). It would be churlish to say which are the “best.” Each pianist gives a splendid account of these works; each brings their skill and understanding to the party.

Encouragingly, Guild concludes his liner notes with the statement that, “There is still a considerable body of transcriptions left to be brought before the listening public, including music by Alan Bush, Edmund Rubbra, Bernard Stevens – and a good deal more.” I for one cannot possess my soul in patience to hear these pieces.

As I have said before, Ronald Stevenson was a larger-than-life character: his music deserves to be in the public domain.

John France

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