It is a constant surprise to me that Ronald Stevenson has such a poor presence as composer and performer in the recorded catalogue. Of course, his most renowned work, the Passacaglia on DSCH, has been recorded more than once. But he has written more than 500 other works for piano (as well as legion songs, instrumental and chamber pieces and a healthy smattering of orchestral scores), only a tiny portion of which have made it on to disc. Divine Art’s three-disc retrospective comprising 53 separate tracks at last begins to redress the balance
And what a collection of treasures it provides. The overwhelming focus is on Stevenson’s reworkings (including variations), recompositions or simple transcriptions of other composers’ music, but the dividing lines demarcating where transcription becomes reworking and reworking becomes recomposition matter little to this most all-encompassing of artists. So for example, on CD 3, his comparatively straight transferences to the piano of Mozart’s K608 Fantasia (1952) and the Romanza from the D minor Concerto, K 466 (2002) lie cheek by jowl with the delightful Melody on a ground Glazunov (1970). Similarly, CD 1 opens with a Bach Prelude and Chorale paired with, among others, the Fugue on a fragment of Chopin (1949 – arguably his first real masterpiece) and Pensées sur des Préludes de Chopin (1959).
As Murray McLachlan notes in the booklet, the work that best encapsulates Stevenson’s approach to writing for piano is the largest presented here, taking in all of his different approaches: the magisterial unaccompanied concerto Le festin d’Alkan (1997). Its three movements are titled Free composition , with no external quotations, Free transcription (a very free reworking of Alkan’s Op 65 Barcarolle with references to Scarlatti and Paganini for contrast) and Free multiple variations , where Le festin d’Esope is transmogrified as the basis for a freewheeling variation-fantasy taking in other matter, not least Death and the Maiden .
McLachlan proves the ideal guide through this unendingly fascinating array of works, supplying the fourth string in Stevenson’s creative make-up: interpretation. McLachlan’s technique is equal to the most challenging of the composer’s virtuosic demands, his musical sensibilities attuned to shaping the torrents of notes into real works of art and his lightness of touch able to draw out the subtle tones and colours that are the lifeblood of the music. If I have dwelt more on music than its interpretation, this is due to its regrettable unfamiliarity, something this superb release will remedy.
The recording is very clear, no mean achievement given the music’s wide dynamic and textural range, the acoustic (the Haden Freeman Concert Hall at the Royal Northern College of Music) comfortable and faithfully reproduced. Here and there, the Steinway Model D shows signs of strain – try the disturbing opening span of Le festin d’Alkan – but this never mars the overall experience. Very strongly recommended.