Murray McLachlan could have chosen an easier task indeed to demonstrate his skills, or for his career, instead of engaging with a rather unknown composer. But isn’t it especially exciting to explore the works of an individual whose qualities one knows better than anybody else, who one knows personally or is friends with? The closer one is to a composer, the better (hopefully) one understands that person’s musical thinking, even if one occasionally takes a position which might keep a certain distance from the composer’s intention or introduce a personal element. In the end it is not about reporting the about the king’s court, but about appropriately conveying a not well-enough-known or even misunderstood artist.
In 2013 Ronald Stevenson celebrated his 85 th birthday. Born in Lancashire but since the 50s living in Scotland, Stevenson belongs to those important pianist-composers, of which Great Britain has seen a series (important predecessors or contemporaries are Benjamin Britten or John McCabe). Stevenson has not only made himself a name as a pianist (well documented by the recording of music by Busoni or his own now legendary Passacaglia based on Shostakovitch’s initials [DSCH], among others) he is also a prolific writer of about 500 compositions for piano (of which the aforementioned Passacaglia certainly is the most well-known). Stevenson’s admiration for the pianist-composers of the past is reflected in his own work, which meanders almost seamlessly between original compositions and adaptation of music by others. In this aspect Liszt certainly was an important role model; he was able to gradually switch between original composition and transcription of music by others but maintain his own profile this way. In this homage to Stevenson, McLachlan initially appears to emphasize the connection to the music of other composers all too much, but if one follows the music, one soon notices the originality of the music, in the truest sense of the word. One period of music, in which Stevenson distinguishes himself, is the era from Purcell to Mozart. And first there are fine tributes to Bach, evolving from the baroque to the 20 th century (opulent variations on a chorale prelude ‘Komm, süßer Tod’ BWV 478, as well as a hyper-chromatic Fantasia titled ‘Prelude and Chorale’).
Henry Purcell’s music is also transformed by Stevenson into music of the 20 th century with ‘Three Grounds’ (three Passacaglias) (1958 etc., rev. 1995), and a Toccata (1955) (adapted expansively, harmonically barely sounding like Purcell) – in both cases Stevenson joins the best transcriptors of the first half of the 20 th century with the musical invention in his work. ‘Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‚New Scotch Tune‘’ (1964, rev. 1975 & 1995) reflects the influence of jazz on the British art-music in a surprisingly late phase, ‘Hornpipe’ (1995) based on Purcell’s D-Major Suite uses diatonic-polytonal components to deepen and clarify the original composition. ‘The Queen’s Dolour (A farewell) ‘ (1959) even leaves the pianistic texture]partially behind – Stevenson re-arranged this piece for guitar later. The moderate tempi of Stevenson’s transcriptions of Mozart’s famous Fantasia, KV 608 for mechanical organ (1952) result in a depth which the original work was somewhat missing. This is no longer Mozart’s spirit, but truly a genuine re-creation. The concentration of the complete texture of the slow movement in Mozart’s piano concerto in D minor, KV 466 onto a pure piano score (2002) succeeds on such a smooth unbroken level, that the original sound-tapestry becomes a minor matter, even for the most dedicated Mozart lover – this is not a piano reduction, nor a piano arrangement, this is a congenial re-composition.
It became customary during the 19 th century to arrange songs and aria for solo piano. A famous exponent of this tradition was Sigismund Thalberg, and Stevenson pays tribute to him with two publications ‘L‘Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano’. The originals selected by Stevenson are surprising for Germans as in this country hardly anyone knows the songs by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Maud Valerie White, Sergei Rachmaninoff or Frank Bridge, the Aria from Meyerbeer’s ‘Huguenots’ or popular songs by Ivor Novello or Sigmund Romberg, which are the starting point of Stevenson’s own compositions; they indeed sound distantly familiar, but are quite unique. In so doing, Stevenson never violates the original selections through atonal, realizably forced new dimensions, but moulds genuine piano pieces from those vocal compositions, with repeatedly highly interesting textures and exciting new coloration, which is added to the original composition quite in the spirit of the original period.
Four quite different compositions in this recording involve the spirit or the music of Frédéric Chopin – from a close adaptation to a highly complex free fantasy using Rimsky-Korsakow’s famous ‘Hummelflug’ [Flight of the Bumble Bee], worthy of an important composer of the 20 th century. With ‘Le Festin d’Alkan’ Stevenson pays homage to a composer who is more well known today than 20 years ago, but who is still surrounded by myths and whose music (not least due to its complexity) continues to await sustained exploration. Stevenson’s composition explores – in form of free transcription, free multiple variations and free composition (the three pillars of his creations in general) – the spirit of Alkan’s music in its own manner, without falling into pure imitations. Quite delicate in turn is the ‘Canonic Caprice on”The Bat”, a technically highly challenging bi-tonal study of the ‘Fledermaus’-waltz. Of very special nature is Stevenson’s engagement with Eugène Ysaÿe: His adaptations of six violin sonatas are virtually new compositions, in which he condenses the original lines, remodels the existing material for piano and develops his own textures.
Next to these adoptions of older music at various levels, Stevenson also appears in quite different ways as an original composer, such as in his Scottish Ballad Nr. 1 (1973) – indeed based on existing material (the traditional ‘Lord Randal’), but harmonically and compositionally in its own clothing. Of quite different nature is the ‘Norse Elegy’ (1976-9) written for a Norwegian girlfriend – elegant sound coloration layered, the given name of the dedicatee woven into the theme. Similarly unique is Stevenson’s ‘Melody on a ground bass melody of Glazunov’ (1970), a quite typical British genre, which from a distance pays reverence to Purcell, but utilizes extended tonality and leaves a deep poetic impression. This tendency is also present in ‘Ricordanza di San Romerio (A pilgrimage) ‘ (1987) with one or two sparse voice textures, which particularly emphasize the meditative character of the music. Stevenson referred to two short ‘Music Portraits’ (1965) as the equivalent of 1920s cigarette cards of famous film stars: short miniatures, which, though technically not too difficult, present clear characterizations, quite similar to his ‘Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull’ (1950) also presented here. In these works, the distinction between original composition and adaptation becomes blurred.
Murray McLachlan, the Scottish pianist who teaches in Manchester (where Stevenson studied in his time), leaves virtually nothing to wish for in this complex material. His virtuous capabilities are without question (20 years ago he presented Stevenson piano concerts on CD), as well as, most importantly, his understanding of Stevenson’s idiom. In a few cases one could have imagined some more extremes, more exuberance, but this is a matter of taste and maybe slightly removed from Stevenson’s intentions as compared to this slightly ‘understated’ interpretation. Very commendable is the extensive booklet (in English only), in which McLachlan introduces the material in an extremely helpful manner. The recording technique allows Stevenson’s music to breathe and accentuates the interpretations in a best possible way.