Bernard Stevens’s Chamber Music

0 of 5 stars

Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland for Violin and Piano, Op.23
Improvisation for Solo Violin, Op.48a
Piano Trio, Op.3
Sonata for Violin and Piano in one movement, Op.1
Trio for horn, violin and piano, Op.38

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
[Kenneth Sillito (violin), Stephen Orton (cello), Hamish Milne (piano) & Timothy Brown (horn)]

Recorded in March 2002 at Champs Hill, West Sussex

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: January 2004
TROY 572
Duration: 68 minutes

Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) sometimes spoke of himself as being part of an “almost lost generation” of British composers. With a distinguished training at Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, whose staff he later joined, he came to some prominence with the composition of A Symphony of Liberation in 1946, commendably non-jingoistic, but his affiliation with the Communist Party would have done little to endorse him to the British Musical Establishment.

A reluctant promoter of his own works, it has fallen to others to ensure that Stevens’s name is not forgotten; his posthumous reputation has grown steadily. There is now a modest discography of Stevens’s music, and this present Albany release addresses the medium to which he was repeatedly drawn – that of chamber music.

The Piano Trio (1942), which opens the programme, immediately makes the quality of his music clear. Terse ideas, with contrapuntal devices put to effective use, launch an urgent first movement. The craftsmanship of Steven’s writing for his chosen instruments is impeccable, and the interplay between them is supremely well judged. A more songful slow movement, with some poignant melodic writing – beautifully played – leads to a dynamic finale where a major-key resolution of sorts is finally achieved. The compact design of this trio – three movements equally balanced – reveals a telling care for overall design, and the work as a whole makes an instant impression, with its alternation of tempestuous and more wistful ideas.

The Violin Sonata, dating from 1940, is a student work, but no allowances need be made for any youthful shortcomings. On the contrary, this sonata is extremely well wrought, with, once again, the balance between the instruments enabling a judicious sense of dialogue. The piano is no mere accompaniment; its biting harmonies offset some of the more lyrical melodies from the violin. The composer’s future wife, Bertha, was the dedicatee of the sonata, and her playing of it led directly to a commission from Max Rostal for a Violin Concerto, which I should now very much like to hear. It is available on Meridian CDE 84174.

Around eight minutes into the one-movement sonata are ghostly musings, which seem to be being re-visited in the opening section of the Horn Trio of 1966, where a similarly chilling, if not unearthly, atmosphere is evoked. I can think of very little English music of this intensity. Rather, I was put in mind of Shostakovich, albeit in mood rather than for any direct musical allusion. There is a somewhat brooding character to this piece, with a particularly striking passage for violin solo, later joined by the horn, at the start of the second movement. Sprung rhythms make for a more impetuous conclusion, but one does not sense that the fretful aura has been entirely dispelled.

The Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland, composed in 1953, is a product of Stevens’s interest in Elizabethan music. Indeed, there are four ’Fantasia’ works, composed between 1949 and 1953. But the freedom implied by the title does not extend to any meandering music from Stevens’s pen; there is the same rigorous control exerted over the material as there is in the other music on this disc. The Dowland Fantasia does not focus exclusively on John Dowland’s melancholia; indeed there are moments of comparative high spirits and an exultant coda, which are well-captured by Hamish Milne and Kenneth Sillito.

The Improvisation for Solo Violin, which concludes this CD, exists in two versions – for violin, written in 1973, and for viola, made subsequently for the composer’s daughter Catherine in 1978. We return, essentially, to a mood of introspection, though this is offset by more animated passages, with careful exploration of themes, rather belying the ’improvisation’ of the title.

The performances on this CD demonstrate affinity and confidence – one or two brief faltering moments from the violin in the sonata and horn trio do not detract. Indeed, the highest compliment one can pay is that this well-recorded disc encourages one to further explore the still-neglected output of Bernard Stevens.

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