Fantasia on Giles Farnabys Dreame, Op.22
Five Inventions, Op.14
Theme and Variations, Op.2
Ballad No.1, Op.17
Ballad No.2, Op.42
Sonata in One Movement
Fantasia on The Irish Ho-Hoane, Op.13
Introduction and Allegro, Op.29
Concertante for Two Pianos, Op.55
Plus numerous miniatures
Florian Uhlig (piano)
Michael Finnissy (piano)
Isabel Beyer & Harvey Dagul (piano duet/two pianos)
Recorded between 25-29 October 2004 in Potton Hall, Suffolk
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: December 2005
CD No: DUTTON EPOCH
CDLX 7160 [2 CDs]
Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes
London-born Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) was cold-shouldered by the post-war British musical establishment, like his friend and colleague Alan Bush, and for similar reasons – both were committed Marxists and neither showed much interest in avant-garde techniques (though, like Britten and Shostakovich in their later years, Stevens did explore 12-note writing to some extent). Stevens has his dedicated admirers, and over the last twenty years or so a steady trickle of recordings has kept his name from complete obscurity.
Stevens himself was a fine pianist – he studied with Harold Samuel, and later with Arthur Benjamin and Frank Merrick. His music for the instrument, both solo and duo, does not play to the gallery, relying instead on solid craftsmanship (something in which he was a firm believer and which formed the bedrock of his teaching at the Royal College of Music) to make its effect.
On the first disc Florian Uhlig plays the major works for solo piano. These range in scale from the pithy character-studies of the Five Inventions to the bigger structures of the Theme and Variations and the Sonata in One Movement. The Sonata is a particularly impressive piece, cogently argued and requiring a bravura technique without wearing its virtuosity on its sleeve.
On CD 2 Stevens’s one-time pupil Michael Finnissy plays the shorter solo pieces, and Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul the works for piano duet and two pianos, ending the disc with the Concertante for Two Pianos which Stevens wrote for them and which was his last completed work. Stevens is as skilled with miniatures as he is with larger structures – the three children’s pieces, Haymakers’ Dance, The Mirror, and Square Dance, are delightful – and the works for duo generally avoid the clotted textures to which such pieces can sometimes succumb.
The playing throughout is lucid in terms of both structure and sonority, and captured in sound that is both clear and well defined. Calum MacDonald’s extended booklet note is a thoroughly dependable guide to this unfamiliar repertoire.
Is Stevens the major figure his admirers claim him to be? Only increased familiarity with his music will point us towards an answer. But on the evidence of these two discs, which sell for the price of one, the omens are good.