Blow me, but this release was a long time in coming: a representative selection of pieces by one of the United Kingdom’s most prolific and generous composers – generous not only in the big-hearted emotional impulses that inform his music but also in the degree of his time that he has devoted to his colleagues, since by my reckoning something like 25 per cent of Ronald Stevenson’s worklist is accounted for by transcriptions (mostly for piano) of other men’s music, a fact reflected in the programming here. Stevenson was 85 last March, and to quote Donald Tovey on Havergal Brian (two of Stevenson’s own enthusiasms), “even for the recognition of his smaller works, he is being made to wait longer than is good for any composer; and far longer than is good for any country whose musical reputation is worth praying for”. Luckily unlike Brian, whose Gothic Symphony still had almost three decades to wait for any performance at the time Tovey was writing, the essence of Ronald Stevenson is as readily to be found in his smaller works as in his larger canvasses; and as one of the 20 th century’s most gifted pianists he didn’t have to hang on the attention of others before at least some of his music could be heard. True, his Vocalise Variations on Two Themes from ‘The Trojans’ for mezzo and orchestra (1969) will soon have existed for half-a-century without a single performance, and his choral-orchestral ‘Epic’, Praise of Ben Dorain, begun in 1962, seemed destined to remain unfinished until plans for its premiere, in January 2008, finally gave Stevenson the stimulus he required to finish the score. By contrast, his 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH (1960-62) is a palpable hit, its length notwithstanding, with recordings by the composer, John Ogden (a friend from student days in Manchester). Raymond Clarke and Murray McLachlan all in the lists at some point or other, another imminent from James Wilshire, and Mark Gasser presenting the work as his calling-card in locations as far apart as the Wigmore and Carnegie Halls and Sydney Opera House. Still, given the improbable volume of his output (the list of works I compiled for the symposium of essays on Stevenson edited by the late Colin Scott-Sutherland covers almost 80 pages) and the immediacy of its language (Stevenson stuck with tonality through the heyday of serialism: where he uses dodecaphony, it is generally lyrical in tone), the obscurity that still envelopes his art is a cause for enormous regret.
Some of the fault lies with Stevenson himself, of course: he preferred to sit at home in West Linton, just below Edinburgh, and compose with his family around him rather than join the lonely crowd of concert-pianists swirling around the planet like so much solar debris. And savvier composers would have fed their works out to publishers rather more assiduously; but it wasn’t until a group of his family, friends and supporters got together in 1993 to found the Ronald Stevenson Society, which then set about typesetting and publishing his scores that much of this material became available. But no matter how impressive your mousetrap, of course, the world will not necessarily beat a path to your door, and Stevenson remains a grievously neglected figure. If his works were complicated Ferneyhovian constructions or of Feldmanite inscrutability you might understand it. But he’s a born communicator. The first thing most musicians – folk , pop, rock, jazz, whatever do when they come onstage is talk to their audience; but most classical performers don’t; they come on, bow, smile wanly, play, bow again and bugger off, and that’s the extent of the interaction. In my experience (in the later years of his four-and-a-half-decade concert career, ended by ill health in his mid-sixties) Stevenson was never that kind of ivory- tower isolationist ; the first thing he would do was swivel around on his stool to chat to his listeners and bring them on board. He was also an avid broadcaster. That openness is audible in his music. Many of his 230 songs could be popular favourites, if that’s a condition to which art song can still aspire, and this anthology of piano music contains piece after piece that would put beams on the faces of concert audiences around the world, amateur and professional alike. A number of earlier recording projects I know of foundered, for various reasons, which makes Murray McLachlan’s splendid survey of over a half-century of composition all the more important; and I guarantee that as you work your way through these recordings, you will shake your head in dumbfounded disbelief that music of such remarkable quality should have gone unheard for so long.
Stevenson often quotes Busoni to the extent that there is no essential difference between composition and transcription, that they are simply different parts of the same continuous process. Just as Busoni’s music smears the distinction between creation and re-creation, so does Stevenson’s, and all three discs contain examples guaranteed to frustrate the reflex pigeon-holer. McLachlan’s first CD opens with one such, a transcription of Bach’s Komm, susser Tod , fashioned on Busoni’s birthday, 1 April, in 1991. At the risk of appearing to exaggerate (given that it is only four minutes in length), I think that this is not only one of the great transcriptions; it’s one of the triumphs of the humanist imagination, perhaps because it is the cumulative product of a number of outstanding minds, Bach’s of course, and Busoni’s by example, but then also Stokowski’s, whose orchestrations Stevenson adores, and, of course, Stevenson’s own. The theme is stated calmly, harmonized with restraint—but with occasional notes foreign to the harmony flickering in the background; a second statement, more assertive, is accompanied by rolling decoration, reaching to a rich and sonorous conclusion, with two tiny falling figures, still outside the harmony to suggest that the piece has infinitely further realms to explore. McLachlan—whose expansive commentary with the set generates a 24-page booklet—refers to this transcription as ‘a relatively modest curtain raiser’; I disagree: it’s one of the jewels of the piano literature.
As McLachlan suggests, the Prelude and the Easter Chorale (an Easter offering), dating respectively from 1978 and the late 1940’s and united in 1978, recaptures in its solemn celebration something of the mood of Busoni’s Fourth Sonatina, In diem Nativitatis Christi, but the ensuing nine tracks are given over to the first two volumes (as published by the Ronald Stevenson Society) of Stevenson’s L’Art nouveau du Chant appliqué au piano, his response to Sigismond Thalberg’s near-homonymous collection of 24 transcriptions, op.70, of 1853. There are at least 25 of these transcriptions; the nine lovingly recast miniatures presented here are based on music by Coleridge-Taylor, Maude Valerie White, Meyerbeer, Rachmaninov, Bridge, Novello and Romberg, each bringing some subtle pianistic insight to the treatment in pursuit of honest sentiment—listening to all nine in a row almost risks coaxing the ear into inattentive enjoyment.
After such company the craggy dissonance of Stevenson’s Scottish Ballad No.1, Lord Randal (1973) , in effect a theme and five variations, fall on the ear as a solitary shock, the variations sometimes lessening the intensity of the opening, but not for long: Stevenson does not forget that the border ballad on which it is based involves a young man slowly confessing to his mother that he has killed his father.
To round off his first disc McLachlan corrals together ‘the complete set of Stevenson’s Chopin transcriptions and paraphrases’. He opens with the most original of them, the eight –minute Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin, composed by the 21-year-old Stevenson in 1949 to mark the Chopin centenary—evidence that Stevenson was already a master. It’s astonishing that this barn-storming work has escaped the attention of mainstream pianists, since it would be so easy to programme: end the first half of a concert with the F minor Ballade (its opening is the fragment of Stevenson’s title) and open the second with the narrative splendour of the Stevenson. The other Chopin-based pieces consist of six Pensees sur des Preludes de Chopin (1959), the Variations on a Chopin Waltz (which I had down as 1988 but McLachlan dates to 1950), the Etudette d’apres Korsakov et Chopin (1987, premiered by McLachlan the year after) and Three Contrapuntal Studies on Chopin Waltzes (begun c.1955 and completed in 2003). The example of Leopold Godowsky obviously looms large here, although even when Stevenson follows it directly and combines two Chopin pieces, he brings a rough energy missing from Godowsky’s Faberge originals: they were conceived in the music- room , and Stevenson’s in the Scots outdoors—Godowsky’s pulse is sometimes lost in his filigree but Stevenson’s robust rhythms are never in doubt. Several of the Pensees take a different approach, infecting one Chopin piece with an idea from another. The Variations-Study does what it says on the can, putting the secondary theme of the posthumous C sharp minor Waltz through five coruscating variations. And the Etudette, as witty as it is resourceful, begins with Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Bumblebee’ in the left hand (it’s only a metaphor, no living creatures were hurt …) and then adds the Etude, op.10, No.2, in the right.
The second disc opens with Le festin d’Alkan, qualified as a ‘Concerto for solo piano, without orchestra: Petit concert en forme d’etudes’ (1988-97), at almost half an hour in duration the longest single item in this collection. Again, it gleefully blurs the distinction between composition , variation and transcription, the first movement (‘Free composition’) being an angular, jaggedly rhythmic and darkly energetic study, the second (‘Free transcription’) working references to Scarlatti, Paganini and Dallapiccola into a discussion of Alkan’s Barcarolle, the last of the Troisième recueil de chants, op.65, and the third (‘Free multiple variations’) an extraordinary patchwork of references to other composers—mostly Alkan, but also Schubert and countless others who flash past in kaleidoscopic, fleeting glimpses (I’m sure I caught an allusion to Eckhardt-Gramatte, for instance)—interspersed with three cadenzas, the first for left hand, the second for right hand and the third for both hands together (the gesture itself being a nod to Alkan’s Trois Grandes Etudes, op.76), all of it a ferocious technical challenge for the performer. This is the first time I’ve heard it since Marc-Andre Hamelin premiered it at a ‘Pianoworks’ festival in the Blackheath Concert Halls in September 1999, and I confess I couldn’t get my head around it, the third movement especially, at that first complete hearing, even though the composer had played me some of the music i n ovo at home; here, though, Murray McLachlan’s recording at last allows the listener to acquire a degree of familiarity. I can now distinguish the division of the lines into strata of ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ writing, and slowly what seemed an over-ambitious quilt of a piece is acquiring the degree of structural coherence I hadn’t been able to hear—although I imagine that the ‘Free multiple variations’ will always remain a bizarre, darkly fantastically quality.
The other major works on the second disc are Stevenson’s transcriptions of the first two sonatas of the six that Ysaÿe wrote in a single setting in July 1923; appositely, Stevenson made his transcriptions in a similar burst of inspiration, from November 1981 to January of the next year. Ysaÿes’s originals are keystones of the violin repertoire; Stevenson’s adaptations deserve to be encouraged just as frequently in the concert hall. He makes the music more his own than Busoni did in his realization of the Bach Chaconne; the harmonic sophistication implied in Ysaÿe’s violin textures means the Stevenson’s adaptations sound almost as the piano sonatas that Busoni never wrote. They have no equivalent in the piano literature that I can think of and open up a novel world of texture and allusion that would astound the unwary.
McLachlan’s second CD ends with the Norse Elegy (1976-79), an eight- minute chiaroscuro in which ghostly evocations of Grieg and Norwegian folk-music float by in indistinct tonality, though the mists clear for a simpler central section, and with the Canonic Caprice(after Strauss’ The Bat) (1966-67), but premiered again by McLachlan— only in 2002), a terrific , gloriously over-the-top display-piece, the virtuoso invention of Stevenson’s mind requiring similar agility from his performer’s fingers. As with the Etudette and a number of the other contrapuntal display pieces here, it is difficult to suppress a whoop of delight at the acrobatics Stevenson requires of his material—you can easily imagine the glint of schoolboy mischief in his eye as he turns it over in his mind and tries it out at the keyboard.
The third disc opens with Stevenson’s solo-piano realization (1952) of Busoni’s two-piano transcription of Mozart’s F minor Fantasy , K608, and his own poetic transcription of the Romanze that forms the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, k466. A Melody on a Ground of Glazunov (1970), its lyricism unsettled by its recurrent fourths, then acts as a prelude to the stark and atmospheric Ricordanza di San Romero (1987), a close cousin to the pieces in Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum.
As with Stevenson’s Chopin reworkings on the first disc, McLachlan bundles together his Purcell pieces here on the third , opening the group with Three Grounds (transcribed between 1955 and 1958 and revised in 1995). For much of its four minutes No.1 exhibits a Bachian command of two-part harmony ( the imaginative tempo indication is Andante quasi fado) ; the treble line of No.2 obviously vocal in origin, movingly unfolds over a walking-ostinato bass; and I wonder if the darker No.3 has its origins in a vocal duet. The seven-and-a-half minute Toccata, a ‘free transcription’ from 1955, has obvious points of contact with the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio and Fugue but soon fills its own sails and unfolds as profoundly satisfying piano-writing, yet another Stevenson score that ought to be part of the standard repertoire. As with the Variations-Study the Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’ ( 1964, rev.1975) does exactly what it says on the outside, being both jazzy and audibly Scottish, damned cleverly so, to the extent where the piano riffs around the melody recall the decoration you hear pipers applying to pibroch. The Hornpipe (1995) sounds almost like Debussy recalling Purcell; and the brief but exquisitely beautiful The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) (1959), which Purcell left as little more than an outline, packs an emotional punch way beyond its duration and its slender means—it’s one of the few Stevenson pieces within reach of my own fingers and its ability to generate tears can withstand even renditions as clumsy as mine. Two tiny original miniatures, Two Music Portraits (‘ Valse Charlot’ and’ Valse Garbot’, from 1965), coy and understated, preface McLachlan’s final offering, the ‘free transcriptions’ that form the 13-minute Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950), a Pavan, Gailliard and jig (‘The King’s Hunt’) which all varied, constitute another triumph of the transcriber’s art. Once more, you won’t know why it’s not a concert favourite.
Murray McLachlan deserves enormous praise for these recordings—almost four hours of music which at last prise open the door to let us glimpse some of the treasure trove that sits, gathering good scots dust, in Ronald Stevenson’s cupboards. Some of these pieces erect some formidable barriers in front of the performer, but McLachlan negotiates their difficulties with chamois surefootedness. He’s recorded on a Steinway D (in the Royal Northern college of Music in Manchester, Stevenson’s own alma mater) and, if I have a criticism, or two, it’s that the piano tone under dynamic pressure can take on a touch of hardness; on occasion, too, McLachlan perhaps brings more enthusiasm to bear on the more tender of these plants than they can ideally support. I wonder, too about the commercial logic of bringing out three CDs of unfamiliar material as a set when they could have been drip-fed slowly into the market; Divine Art has at least released it as three-for-the price of two. But these small reservations can be biffed swiftly aside: one’s predominant emotion is gratitude to the musician, recording company and composer—indeed, composers—who made it possible. Its importance can hardly be overstated.