Ronald Stevenson will celebrate his 85th birthday in March. Championing Stevenson’s music has become a cause of a peculiarly British kind, as if the perceived neglect of his enormous output is the result of the same conspiracy by the musical establishment that has prevented proper recognition for figures such as Havergal Brian, John Foulds, Malcolm Arnold and George Lloyd.
Yet in Stevenson’s case, one of the main reasons for this neglect is surely the sheer quantity of his music. No one would argue with the importance of the Blackburn-born Scottish composer as an academic and performer; his work on Grainger and Busoni has been especially valuable. But getting a handle on his works is daunting: as well as orchestral scores, concertos, songs and chamber music, Stevenson has composed almost 500 pieces for solo piano, many of which are fiendishly difficult to play.
Even three well-filled discs can hardly scratch the surface of such a vast amount of piano music. Murray McLachlan, who has already recorded Stevenson’s greatest single work, the 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH for Divine Art, mostly selects from Stevenson’s myriad keyboard arrangements, transcriptions and paraphrases. The pieces range from the blamelessly straightforward – versions of Frank Bridge’s song Go Not, Happy Day, and Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs – to some stormy reworkings of Chopin, including a menacing fugue based upon a fragment of the F minor Ballade, and two of Ysaÿe’s solo-violin Sonatas turned into totally convincing keyboard works.
The most substantial piece here is Le Festin d’Alkan, a “concerto for piano without orchestra” composed as a tribute to the mid-19th-century pianist-composer, which uses themes from Alkan’s music alongside freely invented sections.
Inevitably, perhaps, the quality of the music is variable – some of the pieces sound very much like written down improvisations – but it’s never, ever dull, and its sheer imagination and energy are irrepressible. So too are McLachlan’s performances; occasionally one would like a little more tonal variety, but the dedication of his playing is without doubt immensely impressive.
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