In the nineteenth century it was Franz Liszt who really pioneered the idea of piano transcriptions of major works by other composers. This was not only with the aim of providing material for his own recitals but also with the more laudatory intention of bringing to public attention music that might otherwise have languished unheard.
In the twentieth century this mantle has been prominently assumed by Ronald Stevenson, who not only championed much music by unfashionable composers who were neglected by the musical establishment – Alan Bush and Bernard Stevens, for example, although there have been many others – but also added his own contributions to the music to render it more pianistic in style.
On this three-disc compilation Murray MacLachlan can only provide us with a sampling of Stevenson’s achievements in this regard; and although the music is not as naturally adventurous as Stevenson’s own compositions, everything here still has his stamp upon it.
There is indeed some surprising material here, not least the treatment of Ivor Novello’s We’ll gather lilacs which forms the second movement of Volume II of L’art nouveau du chant , which almost sounds like an arrangement for some Palm Court or other but it is a very high quality arrangement. Other music here is much more adventurous, such as the Scottish Ballad No 1 which treats the theme of Lord Randall with a degree of freedom that brings it close to Stevenson’s own music, with a sprinkling of ‘wrong notes’ that sound positively Graingeresque. The Chopin arrangements which form much of the content of the first of these three CDs also have a decidedly Stevensonian spice to them which makes them much more than simply virtuoso display pieces; the arrangement of the Andantino prelude [track 16] is particularly winsome and irreverent. His combination of Chopin with Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumble-bee [track 21] is glorious fun.
The second disc offers more substantial fare, beginning with the ‘concerto for solo piano’ Le festin d’Alkan – echoing Alkan’s own title Le festin d’Ésope as well as his contribution to the solo piano concerto repertoire. Like Alkan’s own music, this is a real tour de force demanding the most virtuoso playing. In three movements Stevenson produces a whole series of amazing variations and fantasias on various themes by Alkan. He employs a crazy variety of extreme virtuosic writing which echoes Alkan himself. Alkan’s cheeky sense of humour is also captured. The last movement produces a raging torrent of scales and chords that challenges MacLachlan to the utmost.
The two Sonatas based on unaccompanied violin works by Ysaÿe inevitably bring to mind Busoni’s similar transcriptions of Bach sonata and partita movements for solo violin. Much more than simple transcriptions, they fill out the music with pianistic figuration which enhances the content of the originals. The employment by Ysaÿe of the Dies irae in the Second Sonata (track 8) brings overtones of Rachmaninov, but Ysaÿe and Stevenson treat the plainchant melody very differently from the obsessive Rachmaninov, even when the music comes close to The isle of the dead just before the end of the first movement or to the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini during the second.
The Norse Elegy was written in memory of the wife of Percy Grainger’s surgeon, and pays tribute to Grainger in the employment of a motif from the Grieg Piano Concerto which Grainger had championed in its early years. It is a beautifully poised piece with all the freshness of a Scottish folksong, ending with some key-shifting harmonies that startle and enthral at the same time. The Canonic Caprice draws on material from Manuel Rosenthal’s Carnaval de Vienne (which in turn drew from Johann Strauss, with Die Fledermaus much in evidence) and is much more light-hearted, not to say effervescent, deconstructing the theme with all the vigour of Ravel’s La Valse .
The third disc opens with two basically straightforward Mozart transcriptions which leave the originals harmonically undisturbed. The Melody on a ground of Glazunov again hardly steps outside the parameters of the original until some Stevensonian touches in the final bars. The Ricordanza di San Romerio , described as a ‘pilgrimage for piano’, pays tribute to Liszt’s Années de pélérinage but again remains faithful to its model.
The arrangements of Purcell which follow are described by the composer as ‘free transcriptions’ but there is nothing in the harmonic treatment of these pieces which Purcell himself would have failed to recognize. That is until we get to the Little Jazz Variations – which may be more bluesy than jazzy, but are certainly twentieth century although far removed from Jacques Loussier.
The Two music portraits are original pieces written for children, miniature waltzes portraying Charlot and Garbo. Murray MacLachlan in his booklet notes describes them as “among the smallest shavings from Stevenson’s workbench” but they are delightful and welcome nonetheless. The final three tracks give us three further ‘free transcriptions’ on Renaissance music, this time of pieces by John Blow. Again there is nothing here which the original composer would not have recognised.
Murray McLachlan has long been a champion of Stevenson’s music – his recording of the two Piano Concertos has recently been reissued, and is a magnificent achievement. His playing throughout these discs is as masterly as one would expect, and he is superbly recorded in a properly resonant and slightly distanced acoustic which nevertheless allows everything to be clearly heard. In a review one has only room to notice a few of the many felicitous touches in his playing, but his delicate filigree in the Chopin arrangements cannot be allowed to pass without remark, nor his whirlwind treatment of the left-hand ‘contrapuntal study’ on the Minute waltz (CD 1, track 23). The pianist also contributes extensive booklet notes which explore every facet of the music over a wide-ranging essay of some fourteen pages, which add to the value of the issue.
It might be thought that three CDs of piano arrangements and transcriptions might be all too much to be digested at one sitting, but in point of fact there is such variety and imagination in the various treatments of the material that boredom or fatigue never becomes a factor. Indeed one might have wished for more. One omission that I do regret is Stevenson’s beautiful arrangement of the Song of the minstrel from Alan Bush’s magnificent opera Wat Tyler , but that is already available in a performance by the composer himself. Incidentally is it not about time that we had a recording of Wat Tyler , or indeed of any of Alan Bush’s operas? There are certainly performances of three of these in the BBC archives ( Men of Blackmoor and Joe Hill as well as the earlier work), and although Alan Bush told me that there were a considerable number of errors in the vocal performances in Wat Tyler these should certainly not stand in the way of a commercial release. Another omission here is the Minuet and Funeral March from Havergal Brian’s Turandot , also arranged by Stevenson and recorded by him for the BBC. The BBC have at least two complete recordings of Brian operas – The Tigers and Agamemnon – in their vaults. Indeed they have an enormous archive of live and studio performances of rare British music of all sorts; if only they could be persuaded to release their tapes of some of them, it would be a rare treat. Private tapes of some of these performances can be found on the internet, but we really need properly re-mastered commercial transfers.
Enough of tangential observations. Let us be grateful for what Murray McLachlan has provided us with here – a superlative collection of some superlative arrangements and realisations by one of the great masters of the keyboard. A big thank you to everyone concerned with this marvellous release.