I was confused. When I knew that I was receiving a CD of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music to review, I mistakenly assumed that it was a second volume to Murray McLachlan’s outstanding triple-disc set on Divine Art (dda21372). I had already reviewed this CD back in 2014. As it turned out, the CD in question was the second instalment of Christopher Guild’s survey for Toccata Records. Preparing for this review, I was reminded that there is yet another exploration of Stevenson’s music underway. The first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s study of the composer’s music appeared in July 2016 (Prima Facie PFCD050). I have not heard this disc. Add to this, five versions of the magisterial DSCH Passacaglia and several other discs devoted in whole or part to this repertoire, it seems that Ronald Stevenson’s piano music has suddenly become hot property.
The rule of thumb for appreciating Ronald Stevenson’s music is to understand that his style is an amalgam of Scottish inspiration, alongside a profound understanding of contemporary Western musical developments as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide range of indigenous music from around the world. Importantly, Stevenson was equally at home in making transcriptions of other composer’s music as he was in producing original scores.
I noted in my review of Divine Art (dda21372): A good summary of Stevenson’s place in the musical sphere is given in the liner notes: - ‘If we reject, as too superficial, the standard distinctions between transcription and free composition, one comes close to understanding Stevenson’s outstanding corpus of music. Of course, individual pieces vary enormously both in terms of approach and in terms of style. It is as though Stevenson’s music as a whole becomes a kind of meeting place for kindred and diverse spirits.’ For this reason, I believe that it is not possible to describe what Ronald Stevenson’s music ‘sounds like.’’ I hold to this view.
I began my exploration of this present disc with the ‘Three Scots Fairy Tales’ which were composed in 1967. These pieces were written specifically for young players, and complement his better-kent ‘A Wheen Tunes for Bairns tae Spiel’. These three ‘tales’ explore music ostensibly from a piper, a harpist and a fiddler: all are fairies, which does not imply tiny creatures with wings from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first is a march-cum-jig which cannot quite make up its mind what it wants to be. The second piece is a lullaby which, as the liner notes suggest, could have come from the pen of Debussy. It is truly beautiful. The final number looks across to Central Europe for its inspiration. This short piece is could be classified as ‘Bartok goes to Ballachulish.’ All three pieces are technically demanding for ‘children’: all explore a variety of moods, rhythms and pianistic devices.
A few words about Bristol-born Frank Merrick (1886-1981). He is most often recalled as a teacher and concert pianist but he also composed several important works. He was enthusiastic about then-modern developments in music and regularly played the piano music of John Ireland, Arnold Bax and Alan Rawsthorne. Merrick’s compositions include two piano concertos (c.1935), a cello suite for small orchestra, a Celtic Suite for orchestra, a piano trio and a considerable corpus of piano music and songs. For many years, Merrick was a friend and colleague of Ronald Stevenson. The liner notes relate how he suggested to Stevenson that he make a transcription of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No.2 in E minor. Merrick had called this movement ‘Seascape’ which was duly modified by Stevenson to ‘Hebridean Seascape.’ The reason for the inclusion of the word ‘Hebridean’ in the title was that Stevenson divined that Merrick had used a Skye fisherwoman’s song in the central section of the movement. Apparently, he had ‘collected’ this tune whilst on a visit to the island in the early years of the 20th century. Listening to Merrick’s concerto (which I enjoyed immeasurably) I felt that there was little that was Scottish in these pages: even the slow movement seems to be ‘universal music’ despite the obvious lilt of the Hebridean Song.
Ronald Stevenson’s transcription is perfect ‘sea-music’, although I must admit that it could just as well be portraying variable weather on Merrick’s native Bristol Channel. Stevenson has developed/highlighted a wide variety of ‘effects’ including the cry of the Kittiwake and the surging of waves over the rocks and beaches. The above noted ‘fisherwoman’s song’ gives this turbulent music some repose and allows for reflection ‘midst the storm. It is one of my discoveries of 2017 (so far). The ‘Hebridean Seascape’ was first heard in the Purcell Room on 30 April 1986.
Both of Frank Merrick’s Piano Concertos are available on YouTube: they deserve to be released onto the commercial market.
The longest piece on this CD is ‘A Carlyle Suite’ (1995). The work is presented in five movements and lasts for just over 20 minutes. The inspiration is the life, times and achievements of one of Scotland’s greatest sons, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Carlyle was a man of letters, a historian, satirist, essayist, philosopher and teacher.
This highly imaginative piece looks at facets of Carlyle’s life. The opening number is an ‘Aubade’ which takes its cue from a short (and rare) poem by the author ‘Here is dawning/Another blue day’. The second piece pays homage to the writer’s wife, Jane Carlyle (née Welsh). For this, the imagery has moved to Chelsea in London. Stevenson has created a clanjamfrie of tunes and melodies which include blatant allusions to Chopin as well as Scottish Strathspeys. It is as if Chopin were giving Jane a private recital, which he did in 1848, and her mind is wandering back and forward across the border. The third movement is a cunning set of variations based on a tune used by J.S. Bach in his A Musical Offering (1747). It is subtitled a ‘Study in historical styles on Frederick the Great’s Theme.’ It is also useful to remember that Carlyle wrote a major study of the life of Frederick, which was published in six volumes between 1858 and 1865. The writing of this huge work took its toll on the author, and led to bouts of depression. The music does not really reflect this emotional turmoil, but presents the theme in baroque, classical, romantic, impressionistic, 12-note expressionist and finally ‘new-classical’ guises. It is a vade-mecum of piano styles. This is followed by Jane Carlyle’s ‘Scherzo.’ This is Scottish music through and through with references to Strathspeys. But there is also a touch of the ‘Sassenach’ Hornpipe in these pages too. The final movement, a Serenade, harks back to the opening Aubade, however this time it is tinged with shades of evening.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable work that should be well-known. I do warn the listener against approaching this tribute to the learned Carlyle with a po-face. Stevenson brings his quirky wit to many places in this score. There is humour here as well as genuine admiration.
The work was commissioned by the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association to commemorate the bi-centenary of Carlyle’s birth in the small Border Town of Ecclefechan.
Rory Dall [Gaelic for ‘blind’] Morison’s Harp Book is a transcription of music composed for the clàrsach back on the late 1600s. The liner notes include a biography of the composer, who was born in the Island of Skye, and notes about the music. Stevenson brought a variety of pianistic techniques to his reworking of this material. From simple harmonies, the use of themes in counterpoint as well as canonic devices. Topics explored include a ‘Song for John MacLeod of Dunvegan’ (Skye), the ‘Lament for a Lost Harp Key’, ‘Lonely Monday’ and the ‘Fiddler’s Contempt.’ They are truly evocative pieces that capture the mood of the Highlands of Scotland before the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Ronald Stevenson has invested them with a magic, poignancy and immediacy for listeners who may never choose to hear this music played on the original instrument.
I enjoyed the ‘Three Scottish Ballads’. I can recall being introduced to Scottish ballads whilst still at primary school, albeit I am sure they were well-chosen and slightly bowdlerised. In later life, I have been privileged to read Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English [& Scottish!] Poetry (1765) as well as Sir Walter Scott’s monumental Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). In my old-fashioned mind, this volume ought to be required reading in all Scottish schools, but I bet it isn’t!
The texts of two of the three ballads that Stevenson chose to present were collected in Scott: ‘Lord Randall’, who has murdered his father at his mother’s behest and the mournful ‘Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow’, full of collusion, cowardice and murder. Readers will recall that Hamish MacCunn composed a splendid tone poem on this latter topic. Finally, Stevenson set ‘The Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry’. This ballad was not collected by Scott, but portrays the said lady wandering the streets of Edinburgh selling her wares. Without providing a musical commentary on each ballad, Stevenson has sought to transcribe the original melodies to reflect the mood of the texts. They are masterly examples of this art.
The final work, ‘Lament for a Blind Harper’ is another arrangement: this time based on a melody penned by Ronald Stevenson’s daughter Savourna, who is a well-respected harpist. The father took this melody and arranged it for piano (left hand only). It is a fitting tribute to his daughter and to the Blind Harper who might well be Rory Dall Morison.
The liner notes by Christopher Guild are excellent and provide an essay-length survey of the composer and the music on this CD. My only complaint is that the font in places is so tiny: older eyes struggle. Fortunately, I found a digital copy of these notes on the Toccata website: I wish all record companies would provide this information. I hasten to add that Chandos, Naxos, Hyperion and a few other already do.
The playing on this disc is superb. Christopher Guild provides a definitive account of all these works. Although this disc concentrates on works that have a Scottish or Celtic ‘flavour’ the sound worlds of Bartok or Busoni are often not too far away. The interpretation requires a universal understanding of both pianism and local music making. I look forward to Volume 3 of this cycle, and hope to be able to review Volume 1 at some stage. This is clearly a major project from Toccata Records and Christopher Guild, if the ‘complete’ piano works (original and transcriptions) are to be tackled. I imagine that it will take several years and many CDs. In my opinion, the wait will be well worth it. Ronald Stevenson was/is a larger than life character: his music deserves to be in the public domain.
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981) (transcribed: Ronald STEVENSON) Hebridean Seascape (c.1935/1986)
Three Scots Fairy Tales (1967)
A Carlyle Suite (1995)
Rory Dall Morison’s Harp Book (1978)
Three Scottish Ballads (1973)
Savourna STEVENSON b.1961 (transcribed Ronald STEVENSON Lament for a Blind Harper (1986)
Christopher Guild (piano)
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0388
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.