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Stevens cello DDA25217
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Robin STEVENS (b. 1958)
Sonata Romantica for cello and piano (2019) [27:08]
Three Epigrams for cello and piano (1994) [2:39]
Carried on a Whimsy for solo cello (2016, rev. 2020) [3:56]
Three Character Pieces for cello and piano (2004, rev. 2021) [6:44]
Sospiri for solo cello (2016) [2:45]
On the Wild Side for cello and piano (2018, rev. 2020) [3:28]
A Probing Exchange for solo cello (2016) [1:51]
Balmoral Suite for cello and piano (2017) [11:47]
Much Ado About…? for solo cello (2016) [2:07]
Say Yes to Life for cello and piano (2005) [5:28]
Unfailing Stream for solo cello (2016) [6:56]
A Birthday Trifle for cello and piano (2018) [1:55]
Nicholas Trygstad, (cello) David Jones (piano)
rec. 28 January, 23 February and 8 April 2021, Hallé St. Peter’s, Manchester, UK
DIVINE ART DDA25217 [77:54]

The first piece, the large-scale Sonata Romantica for cello and piano, is difficult to sum up. Robin Stevens takes three pages of the booklet to explain and analyse what is happening. The blurb for this disc describes the Sonata as “a searing […] a single-movement, half-hour epic of the genre”, and that is correct. Structurally, it would seem to consist of an introduction, exposition and development, but there is no formal recapitulation. Throughout, echoes of themes are constantly heard. There are solo passages for the cello and for the piano. The composer describes this as “conversational”. It would really be what any sonata is about unless it is just a solo tune with vamped piano. There is much beauty here, yet sometimes I feel lost with the work’s progress. Is it too long? I am not sure; a score would help. I feel that successive hearings could reveal this piece to be one of the great Romantic cello sonatas in English music. But will listeners invest the time and study?

Three Epigrams for cello and piano are very short; the longest is just over a minute long. The pieces – Foreboding, Gentle Lament and Clockwork Toy – are not Webern-esque in form or aesthetic. Ingeniously, they balance melodic tonality with dissonant piano accompaniment.

Carried on a Whimsy for solo cello is a good example of Stevens’s eclecticism. This miniature plays off various compositional devices. There are microtones, lyrical moments, virtuosic passages and vivid statements. The work ends gloomily.

Three Character Pieces for cello and piano are atonal, with just a hint of a key here and there. The titles are grander than the music: Thunder in the Soul, Wistful Chorale and A Short Ride in a Dangerous Machine. There is to my ear nothing wistful about the chorale: it is intense and quite disturbing. The finale is really a brash moto-perpetuo. Is it meant to echo John Adams’s Short Ride in a Dangerous Machine? I think not. There is nothing even post-minimalist about Stevens’s angular and unpredictable score.

Talking about comparisons, there is an allusion to Elgar’s heart-breaking Sospiri for strings, harp and organ, in Robin Stevens’s take on “Sighs”. This is a study in glissandi for cello. It lacks a sense of direction and seems to be a technical exercise.

Microtones reappear in On the Wild Side for cello and piano. This is definitely “expressionist music” (avoiding "traditional forms of beauty" to convey powerful feelings), with much scurrying of cello accompanied by brief staccato piano chords. The liner notes rightly describe this as a “cataclysmic whirlwind of a piece, which concludes with the listeners having a door firmly slammed in their faces”. This is one of the most fun numbers here.
A Probing Exchange for solo cello is a highly charged miniature, full of dissonance, dashing passagework and arpeggiated chords. It is over in a flash.

The Balmoral Suite for cello and piano is pure light music, a long way from any “ism”, originally scored for recorder and piano in response to a commission by John Turner. Stevens insists that it is a pastiche on Scottish folk music with an occasional contemporary twist thrown in for good measure. An overture, A Family Gathers, parodies several musical forms including a march. There is no need to ponder which family is intended. The second movement, Grandpa Hankers for the Past, is a portrait of Prince Charles, with a distinct nod to rococo music. There follows a graceful and quite lovely tribute to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The penultimate movement, Enter Great-Grandpa is a respectful homage to the late Prince Philip. Listen for the scotch-snaps and a gentle gait of “a gentleman in extreme old age, still endeavouring to live life to the full”. The finale, Rough and Tumble in the Nursery, reflects the “younger family members” full of joie de vivre. It is always the sign of a good composer when they can turn their hand from complicated “art music” to something immediately approachable and quite simply entertaining.

The first of four short pieces that conclude this recital is Much Ado About…? Devised for solo cello, it is the least successful on this disc. It does not appear to have an end in sight, hence the question mark. Stevens writes that it is full of “cheeky insouciance”.

Say Yes to Life for cello and piano was written for a friend experiencing a difficult pregnancy. The composer throws all sorts of rhythmic and melodic snatches at the listener. The liner notes suggest that this vibrant work is programmatic. I suggest listening to it absolutely as a kind of toccata.

I would never have guessed that Unfailing Stream for solo cello was “a probing, almost mystical composition […] whose continuous flow of melody depicts the Holy Spirit constantly working to inspire faith and love in the life of a Christian”. I found it quite beautiful but just a little long-winded.

The two-minute Birthday Trifle for cello and piano commemorates Stevens’s own sixtieth. Despite the intrusion of modernist microtones, this is fun. The jazzy opening and sub-pop tunes lend delight to this little “encore”.

Details of Robin Stevens’s life and work appear on his excellent webpage. In this review, I have concentrated on the music rather than the playing. All the works seem to be premiere recordings, so there is nothing to compare, but one can conclude that cellist Nicholas Trygstad and pianist David Jones are sympathetic to Stevens’s complex, technically demanding and often wide-ranging music. The recital is helped by a vibrant and clear recording. The composer’s detailed notes, brief biographies of all concerned, several photographs and Iain Andrews’s inspiring cover graphics – all this makes for an ideal booklet.

Robin Stevens’s style is characterised by “Beethovenian motivic development; rhapsodic, modal lyricism; bold, dramatic gestures; tangy harmonies; intricate counterpoint; and unashamedly direct, open-hearted expression”. It is an absorbing and satisfying combination.
John France

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