American Record Guide

All 75 minutes of this recording are devoted to the massive Passacaglia of Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, a rarified but celebrated work from 1962 that has devoted admirers ranging from William Walton to Wilfred Mellers. Murray McLachlan, who turns in a noble, committed, sometimes harrowing performance, describes Stevenson as a neo-romantic. That is fair enough in terms of the Passacaglia’s emotionality and constant sense of struggle, but the jagged monumentality of the work sounds a bit like modernist Copland – indeed, like that composer’s own Passacaglia for piano. As Stevenson points out in the notes, this is a strict passacaglia in that all 31 sections – fantasises, sonatas, waltzes, rondos, and much else – are based on a simple motif (based on the initials of D Shostakovich, the work’s dedicatee, in the German spelling). It departs from this severe form in that it does not stick to a single key or mood. In this exhausting but compelling piece, we get unity and multiplicity at once. I confess that I resisted this music for a long time, but have gradually become absorbed by its austere intensity. The sound is big and clear, as it must be.