International Piano

One would think that, from a catalogue that contains any number of exquisite miniatures and one single, massively proportioned contrapuntal monument, pianists would generally have chosen the easier, more accessible, ear-caressing works. But no: just as Havergal Brian’s colossal Gothic Symphony (orchestra of 200, four choirs) has notched up more performances than almost any of the other, usually much more modest, 31 Brian symphonies, Ronald Stevenson’s most often recorded work is his epic Passacaglia on DSCH, a vast and fearsomely challenging canvas close on eighty minutes long. It has earned a rightful place in the sparsely populated succession of titanic piano scores, beginning with the Goldbergs, evolving through the ‘Hammerklavier’, Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica and the profusion of Sorabji’s manic inventiveness, and continuing with Claude Allgén’s Fantasia of the mid-1950s (and there’s another composer who deserves some serious attention) and Frederic Rzewski’s 36 Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Deafeated’. At its first appearance, in the heyday of intemperate modernism, the Passacagalia on DSCH, with its Celtic-inflected Busonian polyphony, was seen as a bold, almost political, assertion of the continuing validity of tonality; in these more liberal times we can see it as it as – a timeless masterpiece.

Stevenson began the Passacagalia on DSCH late in 1960 and it was finished in May 1962, although he continued to add to it until the day he gave the premiere, in December 1963. He didn’t intend to write what is commonly reputed to be the longest single-movement work in the piano literature – the variations simply flowed: Stevenson usually quotes in analogy the flood of river-names in Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle that itself becomes a river of names. But the Passacaglia is not simply an incontinent rush of counterpoint: it is strictly organised, with a macro-structure that divides it into three large spans, within which it is subdivided into smaller episodes that maximise contrast. The ‘Pars prima’, for example, begins with a Sonata allegro and continues with a Waltz in rondo form, Episode 2, a Suite (itself divided into a prelude, sarabande,jig, another sarabande, minuet, a second jig, gavotte and a polonaise), Pibroch, Episode 2 and Nocturne. Stevenson thus has the best of both worlds: the inexorable onward tread of the passacaglia, which is strictly maintained throughout, and a startling degree of contrast. As a result, it’s a work which telescopes time: on every single occasion I’ve heard it, I’ve worried that my concentration might not be up to the task, and the music has not only always carried me with it but somehow seems to lose half of its clock-time in the process – I end up short of 40 minutes.

It wasn’t long after the premiere before John Ogdon took up the work, and his was the first commercial recording, for EMI (and a clear candidate for re-release on CD). Stevenson’s own first recording was a private one, limited to 100 copies; his later account, for Altarus, was released first on LP, in 1988, and subsequently on a double CD (AIR-CD-9091) – a cosmic illustration of piano mastery. Raymond Clarke’s single-disc account on Marco Polo (8.223545), musically admirable, was hampered by rather congested sound. The back of the jewel box of this new recording presents an endorsement of Murray McLachlan’s pianism by Ronald Stevenson. Small wonder: the performance is thrilling. His approach to the work somehow manages to combine an improvisatory freshness and a sense of the inevitability of the form. McLachlan has long been a champion of Stevenson’s music (recording the two Piano Concertos, for example, on Olympia OCD 429), and he plays it here as if mastering its praeternatural difficulties were as natural as running your fingers through your hair. My only criticisms are of the quality of piano used – it sounds rather clapped out, and doesn’t hold its pitch too well – and of the cover design, which is ugly. Still, your ears adapt to the piano, and you don’t have to look at the cover all the time. Strongly recommended.

—Martin Anderson