This is a very noteworthy release, and I am going to go out on a limb and predict that it will end up on many “Best of” lists, or at least abundantly discussed, when the current calendar year draws to a close. ( International Record Review , another print publication for which I write, has devoted a special two-page spread to it.) I first became aware of Ronald Stevenson (b. 1928) two decades ago when I heard his imposing Passacaglia on DSCH , a composition sometimes included among the great piano works of the past century. I don’t disagree; I put it on the same level as Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum , Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus , and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! A scholar as well as a pianist-composer, Stevenson is an expert on Busoni and Grainger, and his piano music is influenced by their work, as well as by Leopold Godowsky, and other virtuoso pianist-composers from even earlier eras.
Stevenson’s music is comprised of original compositions, fairly literal transcriptions, and music that falls somewhere between the two. Reading the headnote, you might have gathered that the emphasis here is on what I will call Stevenson’s “derivative” music, although I am not using that adjective in any pejorative sense. Stevenson is a man from another time—the cover to this release is a photograph of him writing with a feathered quill—and there is nothing wrong with that. At the same time, you will notice that he is not stuck in the 18th or 19th centuries either—his Little Jazz Variations on a theme by Purcell will clue you in on that, and he also composed something called the Rigoletto Rag which, unfortunately, is not included here. The aforementioned Passacaglia is based on Shostakovich’s musical “initials,” and he also composed a stunning fantasy based on themes from Peter Grimes . Thus, it should not be surprising to see that the present collection ranges from Stevenson’s take on John Bull to his thoughts about Ivor Novello (within the second volume of L’art nouveau ), to an original valse inspired by Greta Garbo, from Two Music Portraits . This man’s grasp is exceptionally broad.
A thorough discussion of these discs is not practical, but I will zero in on some of their contents, to give you an idea of what you might be in for. The last portion of the first CD contains Stevenson’s complete Chopin transcriptions and paraphrases. The fragment in question, in the Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin , is taken from the Ballade in F Minor. Stevenson composed this when he was 21, and in it, he wears his affinity for Busoni on his sleeve, and adds a little bit of Grainger’s naïve cleverness. The six Pensées , as the title indicates, are based on Chopin’s Preludes, but Stevenson is not content to gussy six of them up in the manner of Godowsky. Oh no—he actually weaves several of them together, and splices in other works from the Chopin canon as well. For those who know this music well, at first this is extremely disorienting, then it seems like a stunt, but finally, it registers as an artistically viable act of recomposition which clearly tells us as much about Stevenson as it does about Chopin. The Variations-Study is based on the second theme from the posthumous Waltz in C ? -Minor, and the Etudette combines Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee with the second Etude from op. 10. (And the subtitle is “Spectre d’Alkan”!) The Three Contrapuntal Studies are derived from Chopin’s two waltzes in A ? ; Stevenson toys with them separately, and, in the third study, puts them together. To call this imaginative is an understatement. One might wonder if such works are little more than self-impressed fits of ego on Stevenson’s part, but, in truth, the way in which they probe and analyze the essence of the source material creates a kind of profundity.
The second CD includes transcriptions of the first two sonatas for unaccompanied violin by Ysaÿe. Again, Busoni set up the guideposts ahead of time, in his famous transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Solo Violin Partita No. 2. If the aforementioned works derived from Chopin are paraphrases (I think the word “transformations” would be more appropriate), these are fairly literal transcriptions, but that hardly lessens Stevenson’s achievement, as going from a solo violin to a piano requires more judgment and creativity from a composer than going in the opposite direction. Suffice it to say that Stevenson’s transcriptions are just as viable as the two sonatas that he chose. Again, with a different perspective comes different illumination, and I don’t think comparing Stevenson’s transcriptions with Ysaÿe’s originals even makes sense.
The third CD is even more eclectic. It opens with Mozart’s Fantasy for mechanical organ. Busoni prepared a version of this work for two pianos, and Stevenson took Busoni’s version and transcribed it for solo piano. The result is just as viable as Busoni’s. Next is an arrangement for solo piano of the Romanze from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. I find this less satisfying, because the original interplay between soloist and orchestra is part of what gives this music its noble charm. The Ricordanza di San Romerio is a wholly original work, but in language and spirit, it owes much to Liszt. (San Romerio is a monastery in Switzerland.) Following that, McLachlan plays several of Stevenson’s “free transcriptions” of music by Purcell, and the CD closes with more “free transcriptions” of music by John Bull. The latter, in particular, include some grand pianism. In his extensive booklet note (a definite asset to this release), Murray McLachlan compares the Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull not only to Bach-Busoni, but also to Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements of Bach, and the comparisons are apt. Perhaps the reason why Stevenson’s music is not better known than it is has to due with the current mania for authenticity. Some “serious” music lovers look askance at super-caloric treatments of baroque music. Stevenson’s “free transcriptions” are not meant to supplant the source material, but merely to comment on it. Surely there’s no harm in that? The Purcell and Bull works can be compared to early 20th-century eyes, but in a late 20th-century head, looking at 17th-century material.
McLachlan’s association with Stevenson’s music includes recordings of the Passacaglia on DSCH and the two piano concertos. I find him to be pianist with a strong technique and a modest personality—attributes which don’t necessarily go hand in hand. McLachlan’s performances on these discs are conscientiousness and intelligence personified. However, Stevenson himself has recorded some of his own piano music (including the Passacaglia ), and I find that, in general, Stevenson’s playing is more imaginative, and more memorable. The octogenarian Stevenson is not likely to record these works, though, so McLachlan is the only game in town for some (or all) of them. That’s not bad, but I’m looking forward to hearing a pianist with the panache of a Grainger, or a Godowsky, give them a try. In the meantime, McLachlan’s Stevenson buffet has enough delights to make it well worth your while.