Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia encompasses a virtual compendium of piano music styles and genres from fugue and sonata, single-hand solo arias to two-fisted orchestral chording, and from plainchant to polonaise. All this happens over a doggedly unswerving and unmodulating ground bass fashioned from the letters D-S-C-H (Dmitri Shostakovich’s famous motto of first initial and the first three letters of the German version of his last name, musically translated). While the work’s epic scale and technical ambition suited Stevenson’s own formidable pianism (as his two recorded versions readily prove), other pianists have also braved its challenges, such as John Ogdon (whose EMI traversal deserves reissue) and, more recently, Raymond Clarke.
Murray McLachlan’s entry into the DSCH pool makes a clear-cut choice more difficult. He’s terrific at sustaining cumulative momentum and keeping textures fresh and diversified during the work’s lengthy opening and closing sections. Like Stevenson, McLachlan employs liberal, organic-sounding tempo fluctuation that markedly contrasts with Clarke’s stricter adherence to the composer’s markings.
At the same time, Clarke generally achieves suaver, more polished results when playing rapid scales and repeated notes; and his dynamics are more accurate. Stevenson’s performance on Altarus boasts the best engineering among the available CD editions, but spills over on to a second disc, and lacks separate track numbers for each section. On balance, Clarke remains your best introduction to this fascinating work, yet there’s much to admire in McLachlan’s colouristic instincts and seasoned musicality.
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