Though he is almost universally admired for his huge Passacaglia on DSCH, said to be the longest continuous movement in the history of the piano, the output of Ronald Stevenson – who turned 85 in March – is still far less widely performed than it deserves. In addition to four concertos and other orchestral works, choral, chamber and instrumental music and an encyclopaedic song output that sets poets as diverse as William Blake and Ho Chi Minh, Stevenson has produced a cornucopia of compositions for the piano – an instrument he plays as divinely as any of the great virtuosi of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in whose company (perhaps especially in the company of those other great composer- pianists Liszt, Busoni and Paderewski) he undoubtedly belongs. So this handsomely packaged and illustrated, thoughtfully and provocatively programmed three-disc set from Stevenson’s disciple and long-time champion Murray McLachlan is especially timely.
Although there are many original compositions here, more of the items are transcriptions, examples of an art that has absorbed Stevenson throughout his career. Stop there: I would be giving entirely the wrong impression if I led you to believe there was any such neat divide. Rather, McLachlan’s canny choice of works poses a fundamental question: where does transcription cross over into original composition? The evidence of these discs suggests there is, in fact, no such cross-over point: rather there’s a seamless continuum from straight note-fornote arrangement to original composition. (We should always remember Busoni’s dictum that the original form of any composition is already a transcription of the idea in the composer’s brain – a conception that does not contradict in any way Schoenberg’s belief in the Idea as such, that each composition has its own unique and irreducible essence.)
Consider, at the nearer end of that continuum, Stevenson’s beautiful, reverential and entirely effective reimagining (2002) of the ‘Romanza’ from Mozart’s D minor Concerto, K466 as a solo piano piece, an almost literal adaptation of the text but with just a few registral enhancements and decorations, as if a few facets of the jewel have received an extra burnishing. Then – towards the continuum’s further end – listen to his dumbfounding realizations of the first two of Ysaÿe’s Op. 27 Sonatas for solo violin as fully fledged piano sonatas (Stevenson has, in fact, thus transcribed all six), transmitting and extending their magnificent materials into the furthest reaches of the keyboard, not only in register but through the continual intensifications of harmony and counterpoint. As a sheer transcriptional act, not merely making a piece available in a new medium but simultaneously making it anew as a piece, these Ysaÿe-Stevenson transcriptions rival and indeed probably surpass the Bach-Busoni D minor Chaconne that looms so prominently, though assuredly it does not loom alone, in their ancestry.
Then, projecting that line so to speak into infinity, listen to the major work on these three discs: the three-movement Le Festin d’Alkan written between 1988 and 1997, which Stevenson designed to ‘encapsulate my idea that composition, transcription and variation are all essentially the same thing’. For all that this massive and sometimes incandescent work, written for and originally premiered by Marc-Andre Hamelin, speaks from time to time with the voices of other composers – not just Alkan’s, but Scarlatti’s, Schubert’s and at one brief point the combined voices of Tartini and Dallapiccola – it is not, except to a necessary extent in the slow movement, an arrangement of pieces by Alkan; rather, Alkan’s music is the object, the nub, the donnée of its freewheeling discourse. It is a ‘Concerto for solo piano without orchestra’, adding to a tradition that springs from Bach’s ‘Italian’ Concerto and wends its way through Schumann and Alkan and Sorabji – and it is also a ‘Petit concert en forme d’etudes’.
The first movement, which Stevenson terms `Free Composition’, contains no quotations and is a fiercely uncompromising, rhythmically hard-driven piece, divided into ‘tutti’ and `solo’ passages in the manner of Alkan’s own Concerto for solo piano. The slow movement (`Free transcription’) is an almost hallucinatory, prismatically coloured, chromatically, imitatively and figurationally intensified reworking of the famous Alkan Barcarolle (Alkan wrote six Barcarolles, but I mean the one that everyone knows, Op. 65 No. 6). The auditory effect is rather like seeing a monochrome film suddenly infused with colour and its depth of field infinitely deepened by 3D.
It’s in the finale (`Free multiple variations’) that the Festin (communal feast) aspect comes into its own. In Alkan’s Le Festin d’Aesop the variations seem to represent animals – although, unlike say Saint-Saëns’s Carnaval des animaux, we are left to guess their identities; here Stevenson’s variations evoke composers, with Alkan as presiding host, who are borne upon wave after wave of crackling, dissonant invention and vertiginous feats of virtuosity (three cadenzas!), concluding with a double sonic image of infinite pathos – Alkan’s Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore segues into Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ – before the explosive final bars.
Elsewhere on these discs, among the most fascinating pieces are the nine song transcriptions extracted from Stevenson’s collection L’Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano, mainly worked on in the early 1980s and offered as a homage to and twentieth-century extension of Sigismond Thalberg’s L’Art du chant appliqué au piano of 1853. Quite apart from the fact that Stevenson was probably the only person on the planet who, c.1980, would have spared a thought for Thalberg, far less rendering him homage, what might have seemed at the time as the epic author of Passacaglia on DSCH retreating into the salon now proves his prescience – for his chosen songsmiths, Ivor Novello, Sigmund Romberg, Coleridge-Taylor and Maud Valerie White among them, have proved altogether more acceptable in the less uptight (though not necessarily wiser) musical atmosphere of the twenty-first century.
One group of works charts Stevenson’s involvement with Chopin. The 1949 Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin, the earliest work on these discs, is a youthful masterpiece, composed for the centenary of Chopin’s death and based on the main theme of his F minor Ballade Each of the six Pensies sur des Preludes de Chopin from ten years later combines the materials of two or more Chopin Preludes as the basis for a brief, atmospheric – and usually sombre – meditation. The Three Contrapuntal Studies on Chopin Waltzes takes the two A flat Waltzes (Op. 34 No. 1 and Op. 42), arranges the former for right hand only, the latter for the left, and finally combines them in a two-handed ‘Double Waltz’ (one thinks of Alkan, and of course Godowsky). The playful Etudette d’après Korsakov et Chopin (1987) starts off as a left-hand transcription of ‘The flight of the bumblebee’ but then combines it with a right-hand version of the A minor Etude from Chopin’s Op. 10, pointing up unsuspected links between the two pieces as they seem to mimic and answer one another from their different sectors of the keyboard. Here Stevenson as third composer is commentator on the other two.
Indeed Stevenson often seems to be enjoying a dialogue with this or that figure from the past from a position of complete equality, as if they are there at his elbow. This doesn’t make his music in any sense ‘old- fashioned’ – rather he and his distinguished interlocutors become one another’s contemporaries in an eternal present made only more immediate by their shared awareness of history. (I’m reminded of Varèse’s remark about the ‘old masters’ being his ‘intimate friends – all are respected colleagues. None of them are dead saints – in fact none of them are dead …’.)
Stevenson also emerges as a notable champion of English Baroque and pre-Baroque music with a very early set of three magnificent transcriptions of harpsichord pieces by John Bull (1950) and a cluster of works by Purcell, more or less freely transcribed over a 40-year period: these include the piercingly melancholic The Queen’s Dolour (1959), the noble set of Three Grounds (1958-95), bravura treatments of the Toccata (1955) and the Hornpipe (1995) that Purcell adapted from his incidental music to The Married Beau. Purcell is the focus again, but in an entirely different way, in the Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’ (1964, revised 1975).
In the space of this article I can’t detail everything on the discs – they are such a cornucopia. Mostly these are premiere recordings (made in October 2009 and January, February and April 2010), though a few pieces have been available elsewhere. Scottish Ballad No. 1, ‘Lord Randal’ is a first recording, although McLachlan recorded its two companion Scottish Ballads for Olympia back in 1990. Donna Amato’s performance of the haunting Norse Elegy (in memory
of Ella Nygard, wife of Percy Grainger’s surgeon in White Plains), in which Stevenson channels Grieg, but entirely on his own terms, is on Altarus, and the same label has Josef Banowetz’s account of the Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin (on AIR-CD-9089 and AIR-CD-9021 respectively). Jonathan Plowright included the transcription of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod (with the coda arranged from Stokowski’s orchestral version) in his anthology of British Bach transcriptions for Hyperion (CDA67769). But I think that’s all.
McLachlan plays most of this programme with a pianism worthy of Stevenson’s own – not merely equal to all the music’s considerable technical demands but nearly always sensitive in its phrasing and pedalling, aware of the need for a truly sostenuto line, vividly voicing the individual notes in a chord, and with real beauty and poetry of tone even in extreme high and low registers. His performance of Le Festin d’Alkan is like a compendium of his virtues, as it would be of any pianist who successfully attempted it. There is a rare exception – his account of Mozart’s K608 Fantasy for mechanical organ as arranged for piano by Stevenson (Busoni, you recall, transcribed it for two pianos) is strangely blunt and clunky, as if the mechanism had rusted. However, taken as a whole, the set, to which I find myself returning repeatedly, is a triumph.