It all began in another world, on Christmas Eve, 1960, in the village of West Linton, Scotland. JFK had beaten Richard Nixon in the race to succeed Eisenhower in the White House. Khrushchev was in the Kremlin, selling oil to Fidel Castro. Castro was by turns delivering four-hour speeches to the United Nations to medusa-like effect, and storming out of his New York hotel in disgust. Cassius Clay, also disgusted, hurled his Olympic Gold Medal into the Ohio River, when he found a Louisville restaurant still wouldn’t serve him as a black man, the greatest or not. More sedately, Harold Macmillan consolidated Conservative power at No. 10 Downing St., but continued the dismantling of Empire by granting Nigeria independence, and all that entailed. Dmitri Shostakovich had joined the Communist Party and written the Eighth Quartet, with a Lenin Symphony supposedly still on the stocks. In September, he had visited SuperMac’s London with Rostropovich, met Britten, and spoken to the British press about the victims of fascism, in connection with his new, DSCH-laden Quartet.
Whether Ronald Stevenson, composer, scholar, virtuoso pianist, broadcaster and teacher, born in Blackburn, England, and aged 32 at the time, followed this Shostakovich trip, I don’t know. Certainly his engagement with worldwide current affairs, and with left-wing politics, was beyond doubt. But by that Christmas, he was settling down at the piano at home in his adopted Scotland, and starting to fool around with the DSCH motif on his own terms, turning this topsy-turvy post-War world of ideas and events into musical notes. By May of 1962, Stevenson’s private musings had mushroomed into one of the longest continuous pieces of instrumental music ever written, an enormous Passacaglia for solo piano which occupies 141 pages in the printed score, and which in performance just about fits, as you will see in the header above, within the Red Book limits for a single CD’s duration.
More’s the pity, then, that the composer’s own commercial recording, for Altarus (AIR-CD-9091(2)), is spread needlessly over two discs, with other Stevenson works as makeweights, mirroring the original 2-LP issue. Anyone seriously interested in the work will want to hear what the composer has to say, but the Altarus set makes for an expensive introduction. Stevenson takes a broadly Romantic, dramatic approach to a work that sounds nothing like Shostakovich nor, indeed, much like anything else in the piano repertoire. Frankly (and at the time it was written, unfashionably) tonal throughout, the Passacaglia on DSCH evokes the spirit of Stevenson’s beloved (and then equally unfashionable) Busoni in its grand design and ambition, in three parts ending with a gigantic triple fugue; but it rarely sounds like Busoni, and whilst the DSCH motif is made to conjure echoes of anything from a Chopin Polonaise to African drumming, it is the individuality of Stevenson’s writing that leaves the strongest impression – together with the feeling that whilst inside the Passacaglia, time stands still and no other piece of music exists.
Descriptions of the piece tend to be either technical or historical, and can make it seem forbidding. In fact it is nothing of the sort, holding the attention in a lucid and enjoyable fashion. Regardless of the Shostakovich connection, and sidestepping for the purposes of this review the issue of the history of the composers’ perceived political views, it’s clear that Stevenson was striking an early blow for compositional expressiveness in the teeth of Darmstadt by writing this vast, approachable and memorable work, and dedicating it to a composer he described as having “preserved the lineage of the great masters.” That quote comes from the speech Stevenson made when presenting a copy of the score to a rather embarrassed looking Shostakovich in Edinburgh in 1962. Altarus reproduce the speech in full, a fascinating historical document now. Stevenson asserts: “Since 1914 the terrain of Western music has been a no -man’s- land. Melody’s rainbow has been dispersed in fragments. I want you to know that some young Western composers look to you with gratitude and hope.”
Sadly, decades would pass, as would Shostakovich, before such sentiments could once more be deemed acceptable by the musical, let alone political mainstream. The Passacaglia itself, though, never quite went away. Following the 1963 premiere, the composer made a private recording, issued in an edition of 100. It was succeeded by John Ogdon’s EMI studio account from 1965, sponsored by the British Council; a two-LP set that taught the work to my generation (EMI ASD2321/2322). The composer continued to play the work, and a new generation of pianists has taken up the cudgels.
Raymond Clarke in 1994 and Murray McLachlan in 1999 (his version having taken four years to come to market) both worked closely with the composer on the Passacaglia in advance of making their respective recordings for Marco Polo (8.223545) and Divine Art. With the composer’s studio account, a 1990 issue, this gives the prospective purchaser a choice of three current Passacaglia recordings. Each recording features “little differences” to the printed score, thanks to Stevenson’s view of the continuity of the creative process, and his encouragement of the performer’s input. But they all present the Passacaglia as a big, convincing whole. The work derives from a seven – bar theme, repeated hundreds of times without transposition of pitch, though it sometimes vanishes into the surrounding pianistic maelstrom. Stevenson takes the DSCH motto, repeats it with two B naturals at the end, then plays DSCH backwards. That’s the theme: 13 notes; though as John Riley once pointed out, the rhythmic profile of the very first DSCH in the opening three bars of the Passacaglia seems to offer a characterization of the great composer, as well as his monogram. Right from this beginning, Raymond Clarke gives a commendably straight presentation of the score. Despite his performance apparently being assembled from disparate takes at differing venues, on different pianos, the final edit not fully representing the pianist’s wishes, it does hang together very well, thanks probably to Clarke’s long association with the work, and certainly to the familiar polish of his clean, superlative piano technique. The opening is cool, the acoustic dry, but the attention to the quieter, reflective music that follows is matchless, a perfect foil for the troubled nature of much of the more overt writing in the Passacaglia. The result is a moving, classical performance that gradually draws the listener in. By contrast, Murray McLachlan projects the work’s opening Sonata with a dark energy that recalls Scriabin, or Beethoven at his tetchiest; the start of a journey with real sweep and grandeur, the Passacaglia swallowed whole, as it were. McLachlan is stunning in the Fugue. Unfortunately the piano lets him down, and the upper octaves often don’t sound quite in tune in quieter sections. This is a shame, as in Lisztian passages such as those on pages 11 and 12 of the score he visits worlds of fantasy and virtuosity his two competitors do not often approach. In McLachlan’s hands, we’re always made to appreciate the Passacaglia as a meaningful, pertinent piece of contemporary music, rather than as an anachronistic freak-show. Stevenson’s spaciously-recorded Altarus recital is more expressive, moment-by-moment, than those of Clarke and McLachlan, and is marginally the slowest performance. In a sense the Passacaglia was written to be played by a generation of pianists long dead at the time of composition, to whose Romantic, questing or cerebral spirit it forms a memorial. Stevenson plays in a manner that gives that spirit life, his technique making a softer approach to the piano’s keys. Edges can seem blurred, and the work’s nocturnal, twilit sections sound more phantasmagorical, pointing to the serious concerns that lie behind the music, transcending notions of pianism, or the Classical tradition. Parts of the work are labelled To Emergent Africa, In memoriam the six million, and Lament for the Children. At the dark heart of a dark century, Stevenson was not only writing unfashionably approachable music, dedicated to an unfashionable genius; he was also suggesting that music should be involved in the world around it, a world perceived idealistically as a single dwelling place, for all men and women. The tragic uncertainties of real life are every much present here, though, and the idealist is no idle dreamer. What was fashionable in the Passacaglia, however, were the brief passages when the score demands unorthodox playing techniques; not just under and on the lid and strings, but also weird “swell” effects on a couple of individual notes, to be engineered electronically if possible, and a huge welling-up of bass sounds in the Emergent Africa section. These do now sound like period features, linking Stevenson in an incongruous manner to his exact contemporary Stockhausen, similarly world-music inspired, but at the opposite musical pole. For a fleeting moment we think of Mantra, Stockhausen’s epic piece on a similar scale from a decade later, written for two pianos and ring modulators. Then normal service is resumed. Some commentators have found these tiny sections embarrassing, and they don’t seem to add much to the work but distraction, whatever the version.
Nonetheless, Stevenson was once more trying to suggest the existence of other worlds, inspired in part by the beginnings of space flight; and it is nice to think of the very first, respectable Cape Town audience being a bit horrified by those supposed jungle-drums. They sound nothing like them, actually, but the sense of threat to the norm is there. Clarke’s Africa, using differing pianos, is the best, for what it is worth. Clarke’s notes to his own release are, as always, excellent, and he calls the Triple Fugue the “highlight” of the Passacaglia. After more hearings than I care to admit, I’m no longer sure I agree. As a sustained contrapuntal achievement, it is hard to think of many serious competing works written since Bach and Beethoven’s op. 133; it is more than a match for the great efforts of Liszt and the various schools of organ composers in this regard. But Stevenson does incorporate the Dies Irae at the end, and since hearing Berlioz’s and Liszt’s comprehensive workouts for this plainchant, it has been my personal, if frivolous view that the menacing tune is due for retirement. Pianistically the final fugue section is absolutely stupendous, Clarke and McLachlan neck-and-neck in the virtuosic stakes, with the composer a little more approximate but magnificent in effect and control of colour. This is not the end of the masterly compositional road, however, and the Final Variations suggest a grandstand- finale that does not materialise, the actual close being quiet and equivocal. The extra four minutes the Clarke recording takes over McLachlan’s is accounted for in the main by his slow tempo in these last sections, which do indeed thereby become the highlight of his performance, a 13- minute coda with depths not hinted at by the bald-sounding opening; true in spirit to the composer’s current conception of the Passacaglia as a birth-to-death piece. The composer’s playing is more drawn-out and ethereal, spectral even in this section, and less visionary than Clarke, ending with an unfathomably low bass note of indistinct pitch, courtesy of his piano. McLachlan is much faster then the others in the Final Variations, a tortured conclusion for his compelling, stormtossed reading of the whole work. It’s this ending above all that makes you realise the true quality of the music you’ve just lived-through and which, believe it or not, makes you want to go back to the start and hear it again!
This huge work has proved strong enough to survive the years, and very different pianistic approaches; the important thing is that you get to know It. So to the prospective purchaser’s, and the Editor’s nightmare. I suspect I may now have heard it more times than just about anyone, and the position with regard to a final recommendation is not clear. Not only do Altarus split Stevenson’s own recording between two discs, they provide only one track on disc two, which contains the bulk of the Passacaglia. This is extremely unhelpful, and both competitors offer more than 30 tracks for the work, referenced either to the notes, or to listings, with appropriate title headings for each of Stevenson’s sections; though there is some confusion in the matching of tracks and sections in the otherwise fine booklet from Divine Art. Repackaged on a single CD, and properly indexed, Stevenson’s version would carry obvious appeal and authority, especially as the sound quality is good, and the composer finds plenty of light and shade (mainly shade) in his own work. You may be less worried than I about the piano tuning that mars McLachlan’s riveting conception of the Passacaglia.
His performance is filled with excitement, feeling and belief, and superbly executed. Clarke’s sound may be less good, and the pianist may well deserve another stab at recording the work in a more cohesive manner – he still has the Passacaglia in his live repertoire, and his view will have matured – but his existing recording is still the most reliable choice at present. Perhaps a transfer from Marco Polo to Naxos would ensure a new lease on life for Clarke’s commanding ten-year-old version, which achieves real profundity by the end. Which certainly isn’t to say that it’s a ‘budget’ interpretation; it is a remarkable achievement. The classic commercial recording of the Passacaglia on DSCH is that made by John Ogdon in the 1960s. But unless you are prepared to cash in your life-insurance to buy a second-hand LP copy and a turntable to play it on, you can’t hear it. The old cliché of the unavailability of a recording being a scandal is in this case simply true. Ogdon was one of the supreme pianists of the age, and this was one his finest achievements, forming one of the greatest recordings made of any repertoire whatsoever in the 20th century. The sound is a little dated, but the sense of Ogdon being there at the keys of a real grand piano is both palpable and moving. It is a magical experience.
Where has it gone? Will EMI, or whoever now owns the rights please liberate this astonishing monument to musicianship and piano playing from the realms of limbo, at least for long enough for all those interested to investigate? This performance should be celebrated by the industry, not buried by it. Perhaps by Christmas Eve 2004, Journal readers will not only have become more fully acquainted with the Passacaglia on DSCH through one or other of the excellent current recordings, but also be looking forward to finding the remastered Ogdon waiting in their stockings. It seems extremely unlikely, however, that this will happen, and interested readers are urged to investigate the work, and its alive-and-kicking composer now, before the axe falls on current versions of the Passacaglia too.
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