Wednesday, 17 June 2015

I defy anyone not to be entranced by Christopher Guild’s premiere recording of Ronald Stevenson’s A Rosary of Variations on Seán Ó Riada's Irish Folk Mass, just one of a number of fine performances on Volume One of a new series from Toccata Classics

The sad news was announced in March this year of the death of the pianist-composer Ronald Stevenson, aged 87. Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) 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 was a Fellow of the Royal Manchester College of Music.

Ronald Stevenson was 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.

I only recently acquired Stevenson’s own 1964 recording of his Passacaglia on DSCH which shows just how phenomenal a pianist he was (still available on the Appian label)

Now from Toccata Classics comes Volume One of a series of recordings of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. This first release, entitled A Celtic Album, brings works inspired by the music of Scotland itself and includes a number of first recordings. The pianist here is Christopher Guild

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A Wheen Tunes for Bairns tae Spiel: Four Scottish Pieces for Piano (1964) (A few Tunes for Youngsters to Play) opens with Croon to which Christopher Guild brings a lovely simplicity. In Drone left hand repeated chords provide a drone over which a tune appears as well as some attractive dissonances. There is a fast moving Reel played with a fine, even flow and clarity before the brief yet attractive Spiel concludes.

A Scottish Triptych (1959-67) is more substantial with deep chords announcing Keening Song for a Makar: In Memoriam Francis George Scott (1959). Soon an undulating left hand theme arrives, over which a melodic idea is laid. The music builds in power before a more introspective passage, freely developed. When the music builds again there are some tremendous passages, played by Guild with great precision with lovely phrasing and finely judged tempi. The quiet, introspection returns before a more dynamic coda.

An unusual staccato theme opens Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1967) before progressing into a longer breathed melody. The music builds through some tremendously powerful passages, played by this pianist with terrific fluency and panache before leading to a lovely slow, melancholy section. There are some finely judged dissonances before the staccato phrases of the opening return in the coda.

Growls from the lower keyboard open Chorale-Pibroch for Sorley MacLean (1967) before a lovely dissonant Pibroch arises. Guild brings some fine, powerful playing here with some beautifully delicate moments where plucked piano strings conjure up the Celtic harp. As the music develops there are some really impressive passages before strummed piano strings, as the coda arrives. Hushed plucked strings conclude this quite magical coda.

South Uist (Hebridean) Folksong Suite (1969) was not published until 1995. The source of the folksongs used is the book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist by American folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004). Sailing Song: Lively, jolly, robust brings a lively little melody before the contrasting A Witching Song for the Milking: Allegro that has a beautiful melody, given such subtle harmonies by Stevenson. Guild brings a lovely bounce to the rhythmic and fast moving A Little Mouth Music: Allegro alla danza before handling the varying tempi and rhythms of
A Waulking Song: Moderato beautifully, bringing just the right degree of fantasy.

The overarching tune of Spinning Song: Allegro corrente is light and buoyant yet there is an underlying sadness shown here. A Tired Mother's Lullaby: Andante stanco brings another lovely melody, slow and thoughtful and given a lovely ripping flow by Guild before the melancholy poise of The Christ Child's Lullaby: Andante semplice.

A Rosary of Variations on Seán Ó Riada's Irish Folk Mass (1980) takes themes from the music of the Irish composer Seán Ó Riada (1931-1971) in whose memory the work was written. Guild brings a lovely freedom to his playing as a fine melody is revealed, providing some fine control of dynamics and beautifully phrasing. There are so many wonderful moments to mention in this beautifully played piece. I defy anyone not to be entranced by this work, especially as played here in this premiere recording – and what a terrific coda.

Ten of Stevenson’s numerous Scottish Folk Music Settings (1956-1980) were gathered together in one volume and published by the Ronald Stevenson Society in 1999. The first John Anderson, my Jo (1961) (Lento con moto) opens with a lovely, rather tentative theme that soon develops a flow through some fine passages. This is a little gem, exquisitely played. Waly, Waly (1959) (Andante) shows how Stevenson had the ability to develop a simple melody bringing such fine harmonies and textures. With its subtle Scottish inflections A Rosebud by my Early Walk (1961) (Allegretto) has moments of heart-rending beauty whereas Lang hae we Pairted Been (1961) (Andante) has a thoughtful opening that leads to a flowing section with some lovely decorations. Guild’s fine sensitivity reveals a lovely timeless feel in From an Old Pibroch (1956 rev. 1965) (Allegretto/Andante).

Some beautifully overlaid lines bring a strange beauty Ca' the Yowes (1965) (Andante) before the lovely breadth of Jock o' Hazeldean (undated) (Andante fluente) which combines with a melancholic edge, not to mention some fine dissonances. There is a beautifully paced The Hielan Widow's Lament (1965) (Lento com moto) before Hard is my Fate (1980) (Moderato stoico) with its beautifully heart felt Scottish melody and a leisurely Ne'erday Sang (1962 rev. 1963) (Andante ardente) that develops beautifully and subtly in Guild’s hands.

Christopher Guild proves to be a fine pianist who really has the feel of these pieces. The slightly reverberant acoustic is nevertheless very detailed. There are excellent booklet notes.

I await Volume Two with keen anticipation.

Toccata Press have published a highly regarded volume of the composer entitled Ronald Stevenson - The Man and His Music - A Symposium

See also:

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