Ronald Stevenson at 80 – Music by Stevenson and Composers Who have Inspired his Art (2)

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

13 April 2008

St John’s, Smith Square, London


Ronald Stevenson

The third day of this festival ‘all around Ronald Stevenson’ got off to an unexpected start when the morning’s organ recital was cancelled owing to the indisposition of John Scott. Fortunately, pianist Karl Lutchmayer was on hand for a typically wide-ranging programme that began with Alkan’s highly inventive Fantaisie for the left-hand, besides featuring two pieces by Busoni that effortlessly elide the division between ‘composition’ and ‘transcription’. Sonatina super Carmen is a scintillating and yet organically-conceived medley from Bizet’s opera, while Bach’s D minor Chaconne is a locus classicus of creative transcription such as remains faithful to the spirit of the music – Lutchmayer favouring the stark conclusion that Busoni devised for his “Klavierübung” rather than the more familiar original. Taut and eloquent, Liszt’s Reminiscences on Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (his final such paraphrase) was a discovery, and though Lutchmayer apologised for a repeat airing of Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971), his lucid way with this insightful piece more than justified its inclusion. A recital that augers well for Lutchmayer’s full-length recital at The Warehouse on the afternoon of 20 April.

Lunchtime then brought “A Garland for Ronald”, courtesy of Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow. Busoni’s laconic two-piano transcription of the Overture to Mozart’s “Der Zauberflöte” was followed by a varied selection for piano duet – the inspiriting first piece from Busoni’s Finnländische Volksweisen, the first of Grieg’s Norwegian Dances, the poetic second piece from the Tatra-Album of Paderewski (a figure whose music and pianism has profoundly influenced Stevenson’s own thinking), and the deft stylisation that is Stevenson’s Two Chinese Folksongs (1966). Goldstone and Clemmow returned to the two-piano medium for Britten’s Mazurka Elegiaca – a heartfelt memorial to Paderewski – and the B flat Sonata that Goldstone has himself realised from Mozart fragments: Mozartean both in its demeanour and follow-through, it brought this recital to an instructive and pleasurable conclusion.

Joseph Banowetz

The afternoon recital by Joseph Banowetz (a long-time colleague of Stevenson and advocate of his music) was among the most keenly awaited of this weekend’s events. His selection of Stevenson’s piano output took in two of the three Sonatinas which are among his earliest acknowledged pieces: the three-movement First (1945) has an impersonality that may reflect the influence of Hindemith’s piano sonatas, while the two-movement Second (1947) is an appreciably more individual statement. Banowetz played them ably if a shade dutifully (John Ogdon performed the First Sonatina with far more verve), as if regretting his decision to have preceded them with the Berceuse symphonique (1951) – a prescient homage to Busoni and given with a limpid clarity equally evident in the Sonata Serenissima (1977), a memorial tribute to Britten and the more affecting for its brevity. Liszt’s Third Hungarian Rhapsody evinced a degree of overemphasis that was surely wrong for this most understated of the composer’s earlier such pieces, but Liszt’s transcription of Chopin’s song “My Joys” had a rapt serenity that underlined why Banowetz is held in such high regard by his peers.

Late afternoon brought ‘Inspiration and Influence’ – a diverse miscellany that opened in scintillating manner with Murray McLachlan playing four out of the nine transcriptions (1963) that Stevenson fashioned from songs by Francis George Scott. The UK premiere of Marina Pikoul’s Sépia for violin and
piano left regrettably little impression, but David Wyn Lloyd showed a keen sensitivity on switching to the viola for Britten’s Lachrymae – stylishly accompanied by Nancy Lee Harper. Martino Tirimo then took the floor for the London premiere of Stevenson’s winsome transcription (2002) of the ‘Romanza’ from Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto (K466), before ending the recital with Beethoven’s Eroica Variations (Opus 35) – trenchantly given, if just a little stolid during the climactic fugue, though with the ominous approach to this and the coda realised in the subtly questing manner that has long been a Tirimo hallmark.

The ‘Final Concert’ was an epic in itself. Wyn Lloyd and Harper returned for Stevenson’s Recitative and Air on DSCH (1975) – a probing revisiting of the motif he had mined intensively over a decade before, and (sadly) more appropriate as the memorial it became than as the 70th-birthday tribute intended. Harper gave elegant accounts of Stevenson’s transcription (1958) of Purcell’s The Queen’s Dolour, a belatedly rediscovered A major Sonata by Domenico Scarlatti (receiving its London premiere), and Stevenson’s grandly rhetorical transcription (1955) of a Toccata once thought to be by Bach but latterly identified as Purcell. Published two decades ago, Stevenson’s transcription (1987) of the opening Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was only publicly aired in 2002. Now, as then, Alton Chung Ming Chan was the performer and yet his manifest pianistic skills eschewed even a hint of rubato – without which this could not be other than ‘Mahler by numbers’. A pity, as the transcription is masterly even by Stevenson’s standards (one might paraphrase his comment on Liszt transcriptions by saying that if all other evidence of the piece’s existence vanished, one would still have an innate understanding of its essence through this transcription), and requires much more than just technical proficiency. Ending the first half (!), Noriko Ogawa gave a fine account of Takemitsu’s haunting Rain Tree Sketch and one of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata that brought virtuosity and pathos into persuasive accord.

Moray Welsh

The second half opened with Chopin’s late but masterly Cello Sonata – evidently a favourite chamber work of Stevenson and played with real style and sensitivity by Moray Welsh and Martin Roscoe. A lighter dimension was provided by a veritable relay of pianists, led by Penelope Thwaites and John Lavender, in “A Grainger Salute” – recklessly resourceful arrangements by Grainger of Harvest Hymn, Country Gardens, Zanzibar Boat Song (a minor masterpiece), and (along with an increasingly audible contribution from the audience) The Keel Row and Ye Banks and Braes. Welsh and Roscoe returned for the cello and piano version of Stevenson’s Recitative and Air on DSCH and, by way of conclusion, A’e Gowden Lyric (1965) – an arrangement of a song to words by Stevenson’s close friend Hugh MacDiarmid, and whose twelve bars exude an inward ecstasy that makes this a brief but not a minor masterpiece.

Whatever its excesses, this was a timely celebration of a figure whose protean creativity has long been acknowledged but too little recognised, and Murray McLachlan can take great credit for putting the weekend together. Could I second Robert Matthew-Walker (in his review of the first two days) in urging Stevenson to make a transcription of the ‘Passacaglia’ from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and suggest that the “major independents” consider issuing the recently premiered choral work “Ben Dorain”, as well as the violin and cello concertos that (along with the two piano concertos) otherwise comprise the composer’s major orchestral achievements. Such works were inevitably outside the scope of this series, which was nevertheless a milestone in the dissemination of Stevenson’s music and will hopefully be built upon in the coming years. By his own admission, Stevenson is still hard at work and one can only wish him many years yet of creativity.

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