I have never been a fan of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. It has just never appealed to me. Friends of mine would say that my problem is that I have never got beyond G&S’s The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe in my operatic tastes, and there may be some truth in that! On the other hand, I do recognise the importance of Grimes as ushering in a glorious new age of operatic endeavour in post-war (1945) Britain. Ronald Stevenson has written: ‘Peter Grimes is the living conflict. His pride, ambition, and urge for independence fight with his need for love: his self-love battles against his self-hate…’
The basic contention of this Fantasy is the juxtaposition of quotations of storm music symbolising the aggression of the crowd with the haunting ‘Dawn Interlude’ to reflect the drowning of Grimes at sea in the early morning. The Fantasy is a microcosm of the entire opera, presented in just over seven minutes. Stevenson’s music is complex and demanding making use of a Lisztian thesaurus of technical devices.
I have always loved the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia arranged by Britten from the score. For me this is Peter Grimes in a digestible form. Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy gives me another ‘take’ on this opera which I find equally satisfying.
The Peter Grimes Fantasy was composed in 1971 for the pianist Graham Johnson.
The Three Scottish Ballads (1973) are a little less troubling for the listener, in spite of the violent nature of some of the original texts. Stevenson selected two ballads included in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). The tunes he has sourced from elsewhere. The first is about Lord Randall who committed patricide at his mother’s bidding, whilst the ‘Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow’ is a tale of collusion, cowardice and murder. The final ‘ballad’ is based on ‘The Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry.’ Stevenson’s approach to these pieces is not to write a tone-poem on each ballad, but simply to transcribe the tune to give a general impression of the impact of the tale.
The Beltane Bonfire was commissioned by the Scottish International Piano Competition as a test piece for the 1990 competition. The work was completed in ‘early summer 1989’ and was first performed by Nigel Hutchinson in the Purcell Room on 6 February 1990. Out of interest Beltane is the Gaelic May Day Festival held in the Celtic parts of the United Kingdom. One of the events was the driving of cattle past the bonfires as part of a purification ceremony. Stevenson has represented this by a slow ‘winding fugue.’ Other interesting allusions are to Chopin’s famous A flat Polonaise and the ‘Trial by Fire’ from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The listener must look out for plucked piano strings ‘imitating the clàrsach or Scottish harp.’ It is a great piece that is hugely demanding for the soloist, both in its technical requirements and the eclectic interpretive skills required to bring it off successfully. It is certainly a worthy ‘test piece’, way beyond my Grade 6½.
I guess I could say a lot about Hugh MacDiarmid as a Scottish journalist, essayist, poet, and political figure. As a Scot, myself I do have a great sympathy with his literary style. His political ratiocinations and personality are less appealing (to me).
Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Heroic Song’ was commissioned by the BBC to mark MacDiarmid’s 75th birthday. The two men were good friends and shared many political opinions. The work contrasts a medieval Scottish New Year song with a misty portrayal of the ‘high hills, of space and solitude…’ The work is designed to present a musical evocation of ‘The Poet Speaks’, ‘The Poet Laughs’ and ‘The Poet Dreams.’ The music balances an acerbic sound (MacDiarmid’s notable high pitched laugh?) with something that is more numinous.
Stevenson’s Symphonic Elegy for Liszt is a deeply wrought work full of musical and even literary allusions and quotations. Hamilton explains in the liner notes that Stevenson’s model was not the Liszt of the Hungarian Rhapsodies or the Opera Fantasias: it reflected the composer’s later works such as the Venetian La Lugubre Gondola elegies, being altogether dark, gloomy and introverted.
The overarching form of Stevenson’s piece is a massive ‘barcarolle’, the traditional folk-song rhythm of Venice. Added to the mix is a tune that is quite Scottish in its sound, complete with ‘snaps.’ This makes the work Scotto-Hungarian-Venetian in its imagery. Other allusions include Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ from the Second Piano Sonata and Liszt’s own Piano Sonata. Clearly this is a complex, technically difficult work, although as noted above not obviously virtuosic. The overall effect is reflective, as if Liszt looking back on his career, from a detached point of view. Venice is, I believe, always at the forefront of this piece. Both Liszt and Stevenson loved this great city. The Elegy was composed to mark the centenary of Franz Liszt’s death in 1986.
The Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann was composed in 1979. It is a very short, but tightly structured piece. The ‘reverse’ in the title implies that the music progresses from the ‘coda, final entries and stretto’ to the fugal exposition: from intensity to repose. The chorale, which is based on the words ‘Everything transient is merely a parable’ from Schumann’s Scenes of Faust, is presented in distortion. It is wrapped round the beginning and end of the fugue. A quotation of Clara Schumann’s song ‘Secret Whispers here and there’ is also ‘slyly introduced.
I have remarked before that Stevenson is in the trajectory of the great romantic virtuoso pianists such as Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Percy Grainger and Paderewski. Going further back in time, Liszt is also an important influence. One of the common features of these men was that they were composers of vast amounts of piano music. Their catalogues include much original music but also many transcriptions, arrangements and paraphrases of other composers’ music. Ronald Stevenson is no exception to this very important, but sometimes controversial adjunct to music-making. It is not the forum to accurately define these three genres, safe to say that there is considerable blurring around the edges.
The Ivor Novello ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ is a beautiful arrangement of the song. Stevenson cleverly and deftly includes an accompaniment figuration from Rachmaninov’s song ‘Lilacs’ included in that composer’s Twelve Songs op.21 no.5. It is good that Kenneth Hamilton has presented Rachmaninov’s original piece as a ‘prelude’ to the Stevenson transcription. Stevenson’s Tauberiana is a realisation of Ricard Tauber’s ‘My Heart and I’ from his musical Old Chelsea. It is a splendid arrangement of this lovely tune, represented by a ‘hushed reminiscence’ of the waltz tune, followed by a sweeping, ball room version.
Still reflecting other composer’s music, the Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1562 or 1563–15 March 1628) include a Pavan, a Galliard and a Jig, all found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. They were transcribed in 1950. Stevenson’s achievement here is to balance a romanticised reinterpretation of this 16/17th century music as seen through the eyes of Busoni where the all the modern resources of the ‘struck’ grand piano are brought to bear against the ‘plucked’ virginal of Bull’s time. It is a style that may not appeal to enthusiasts of historical instruments, but there is no doubting the impact of these three pieces. The Jig is especially exhilarating.
I found that the sound quality is excellent on this disc, although I did feel the piano was just a little bit brittle at times. The liner notes are first class: Hamilton has provided a major essay about these varied piano works. Like so many inserts these days, I found the text small and hard to read. There is no recording date given.
I relished this first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s exploration of Ronald Stevenson’s music. The selection of music presented on this disc barely overlaps with the first two volumes of Christopher Guild’s edition of the piano music on Toccata (TOCC0272 and TOCC0388). The only work in common is the Three Scottish Ballads (1973). Equally, the programme on Murray McLachlan’s three-CD survey on DIVINE ART RECORDS DDA21372 does not conflict.
Based on the imaginative, inspiring and technically demanding performances on this present disc, I do hope that ‘Volume 1’ is the first of a large edition of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. Glancing at the catalogue of original and transcribed piano works in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music (ed. Colin Scott-Sutherland, Toccata Press, 2005) there is plenty material to be recorded.
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971)
Three Scottish Ballads (1973)
Beltane Bonfire (1989)
Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1959-67)
Symphonic Elegy for Liszt (1986)
Chorale and Fugue in reverse for Robert and Clara Schumann (1979)
Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Lilacs, op.21, no.5 (1902)
Ivor Novello (1893-1951) We’ll Gather Lilacs (arr. Stevenson) (1980)
Richard TAUBER (1891-1948) Tauberiana, ‘My Heart and I’ from Old Chelsea (arr. Stevenson) (1980)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
PRIMA FACIE PFCD050