The Classical Reviewer

I first heard the music of Ronald Stevenson (b.1928) from recordings issued on the Altarus label a couple of decades ago. Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire of Scottish and Welsh ancestry. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. From 1962 to 1965 he taught composition and piano in the University of Cape Town. He was a visiting Professor at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1985 and also performed and gave seminars at the Julliard School, New York. Stevenson is a Fellow of the Royal Manchester College of Music.

Ronald Stevenson is a prolific composer having written orchestral works, concertos, choral music, chamber music, song cycles and a large number of works for piano. Many of his works for piano take the form of transcriptions, arrangements or variations on themes of other composers. Indeed Stevenson’s longest work is his Passacaglia on DSCH, the personal musical motto of Shostakovich. Stevenson has never made a distinction between transcription and original composition, perhaps following on from the practice of composers such as Bach.

A new release from Divine Art Recordings gives an excellent view of Stevenson’s art, showing the vast scope of his piano transcriptions, variations and arrangements. Murray McLachlan has recorded a large number of these works on this 3 CD set recorded between October 2009 and April 2010 at the Royal Northern College of Music.

The first CD opens with a transcription of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod BWV 478 that builds in complexity, in a transcription fully worthy of Busoni, on whose birthday it was written. Stevenson’s Prelude and Chorale (an Easter offering) that follows is a cool and restrained Busoni inspired andante.

The five pieces that make up volume one of L’Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano are transcriptions of songs. Coleridge-Taylor’s Elëanore , provides a light attractive theme blending surprisingly well with Maud V White’s So we’ll go no more a-roving which gains immensely from Stephenson’s gentle phrasing and colour, shown to great effect by Murray McLachlan. Meyerbeer’s Plus blanche que la plus blanche hermine opens simply, played by the left hand only for several bars, before the transcription opens out with a number of playful touches. Rachmaninov would have appreciated Stevenson’s transcription of his lovely song In the silent night , a beautiful creation in its own right. Stevenson transforms Frank Bridge’s Go not, happy day into a real show piece to end this set.

In L’Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano Volume 2 Ivor Novello’s Fly home little heart is so arranged as to sound so much more, with its arpeggios and rich sonorities. Ronald Stevenson manages to present We’ll gather lilacs in such a wonderfully decorated guise as to give it a completely new feeling, with the main tune only appearing halfway through. Coleridge-Taylor’s Demande et response is a delicate, waltz like, piece as is Sigmund Romberg’s song Will you remember , which makes for a quiet conclusion to volume two.

Stevenson’s Scottish Ballade No.1 (Lord Randal) presents the tune in a series of somewhat dissonant variations and Fugue on a fragment of Chopin is based on Chopin’s F sharp minor Ballade, with the Chopin theme weaving through the fugal texture. As it rises to a climatic conclusion, there is some terrific playing from Murray McLachlan.

The six pieces that form Pénsées sur des Préludes de Chopin combine various preludes with remarkable results. These are no Godowski like virtuosic pieces but works of some emotional depth, lightened in the andantino of No.3 and, in No.4, presented in a distorted way by playing each hand in major and minor keys. No.5 allegro is the one really virtuosic piece here in a terrific arrangement that combines two preludes played in E flat minor and G minor that even pulls in the Marche Funèbre from Chopin’s B flat minor sonata.

Variations-Study on a Chopin Waltz is an early work that is based on Chopin’s C sharp minor Waltz Op Posth. and showing Stevenson’s early talent for finding variations. If you’ve ever heard a tune that reminds you of another piece just listen to how Stevenson combines Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee and Chopin’s A minor Etude Op.10 No.2 in Etudette d’après Korsakov et Chopin. What a tour-de-force from Stevenson, magnificently realised by Murray McLachlan.

With the Three contrapuntal studies on Chopin Waltzes Godowski does come to mind in these terrific studies, with No.1 for right hand only, No.2 for left hand only and No.3 an incredible ‘double waltz’ combining both together. There is phenomenal playing here, with phrasing that, in this difficult piece, is amazing. There is no doubt of Murray McLachlan’s superb technique.

The second disc in this set commences with Le festin d’Alkan: Concerto for solo piano ‘Petit concert en forme d’études pour piano seul à Peter Hick. The first movement is a Free composition , a phenomenal piece that requires great technical ability. It is full of dissonances, forward momentum and frighteningly difficult passages for the pianist. The second movement is titled Free transcription and draws on Alkan’s Barcarolle Op.65 No.6 and is no less challenging. The central trio section brings in quotes from Scarlatti and Paganini before the Barcarolle returns in a different guise, at first quiet dark sounding. Finally there are Free multiple variations , a fearsomely complex movement that concludes with a Schubertian quotation from Death and the Maiden. This is a quite stunning performance from McLachlan, technically accomplished, controlled, full of bravura yet sensitive to the music’s details.

Sonata No.1 in G minor is an arrangement of Ysaÿe’s first unaccompanied violin sonata with a sonorous yet dissonant variation in the opening preludio , and a lovely fugato , where Stevenson’s debt to Bach through Ysaÿe, Busoni and Godowski is evident, yet so original. The allegretto poco scherzoso is a lighter piece, a perfect contrast to the fugue, whilst the lively finale con brio allegro , with an almost dance rhythm concludes the first sonata. And did I hear a quote from Rachmaninov’s famous C sharp minor prelude glinting through?

The first movement of Sonata No.2, obsession , opens with a quotation of the Dies Irae which continues to be merged into the texture, as is Bach’s E major Partita which Ysaÿe quoted in his sonata. Malinconia is a quiet little movement where the Dies Irae again intrudes as it does in Dances des ombres and the unsettled Les furies . At times it is difficult to know which is Ysaÿe, Stephenson, Bach or the Dies Irae such are they entwined. Murray McLachlan fully does justice to this work in playing that is impeccably accomplished.

Norse elegy was written in memory of Percy Grainger’s surgeon’s wife, Ella Nygaard, using a musical monogram on the name Ella (E-A-A-A) and is a really telling elegy, marked con passion repressa, quoting the opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto and eloquently played by McLachlan. Finally there is Canonic Caprice on ‘The Bat’. This may only be 4½ minutes long but it packs in so much around the well-known tune by Moritz Rosenthal. This is a technically demanding piece wonderfully played to round off CD2.

The third disc opens with the Fantasy for mechanical organ, an arrangement by Stevenson for two hands of Busoni’s two piano arrangement of Mozart’s original work. At first it sounds more like Bach, with a wonderful fugue, before proceeding into the thoughtful andante con variazioni . The Romanze from Piano Concerto in D minor K.466 (Mozart) is a straightforward arrangement for solo piano that cleverly hints at the orchestral part with some added ornamentation whilst Melody on a ground by Glazunov, a brief poco lento, draws on Glazunov’s Poème Improvisation. Ricordanza di San Romerio is another short but affecting piece evoking plainchant apparently inspired by the monastery of St Romerio in Switzerland.

Purcell arrives in the form of Three Grounds, a transcription of Purcell themes including the Ode to St Cecelia . This is poised, elegant music, with an underlying contrapuntal line, elegantly played by McLachlan. Purcell appears again in the Toccata where he seems to meet Bach in a simply wonderful ‘free transcription’ brilliantly played. Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s New Scotch Tune are, indeed, jazzy variations that have a distinctive American feel in their bluesy melodic style which, as it progresses, could almost be Gershwin.

Hornpipe is based on Purcell’s 6 th Suite for Harpsichord and, at times, has a nostalgic charm. We are told that The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) was later arranged for guitar. This is evoked with a quiet little melody, sensitively played by McLachlan. Two Music Portraits are two miniatures for children Valse Charlot and Valse Garbo intended as musical ‘cigarette cards’ of film stars. Three Elizabethan pieces after John Bull date from 1950 when Stevenson was only 22 years of age. There is a beautiful pavane , a stately galliard that midway builds in strength and a lively and quite fiendish jig (The Kings Hunt) played with a real sense of abandon by McLachlan.

I have written far more than I normally would in a review but, such is the interest in this set, I could not have done the music justice by omitting any of the works here.

Murray McLachlan is a tremendous advocate for these pieces and provides detailed notes. The recordings are clear and detailed. This new release should appeal to all lovers of fine piano music and, indeed, music lovers in general, where they will find much to enjoy.

—Bruce Reader