Ronald Stevenson and Friends Prima Facie PFCD202

Ronald Stevenson and Friends
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano)
John Turner, Laura Robinson (recorder); Benedict Holland (violin); Harvey Davies, Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 2022, Heaton Moor Studios, Stockport, Cheshire, UK
Prima Facie PFCD202 [68]

This fascinating recital begins with one of many arrangements Percy Grainger made of Country Gardens between 1908 and 1947. Grainger and Ronald Stevenson, the protagonist of this programme, were close friends. The arrangement, for descant recorder and treble recorder, was completed at Balfour Gardiner’s home at Fontwell Hill.

Stevenson set A Year Owre Young (“owre” is Scots for “over”) to a text by the Scottish novelist and poet James Hogg. He scored it for mezzo-soprano and violin. The subject is that “the bonnie lad with the yellow hair” no longer comes to woo her. This evocative song is timeless and modern at the same time.

Equally enchanting is the setting of William Blake’s poem To Autumn for soprano and recorder. It is effectively a “monody” for voice, with the recorder providing a prelude and interlude. In the “middle eight”, the two performers come together. The text explores the colours and sentiments of an autumn day.

Celtic Triptych for solo recorder, perhaps Ronald Stevenson’s last composition, was dedicated to the present soloist, John Turner. The liner notes explain that Grainger had adapted material from his Scots Suite for solo violin from 1974. There are three absorbing movements. Slow Air is “the song of a lonely soul”. The Strathspey incorporates a Scottish folk tune, The Marquis of Huntley. The finale is a twelve-tone rondo. Stevenson gave it an unofficial subtitle of The Drunk Man Looks at the Fiddle. Fans will get the allusion to his friend Hugh MacDiarmid’s legendary stream-of-consciousness poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

For sheer delight, it is hard to beat Stevenson’s A Wee Holiday Suite. He composed it whilst he was visiting Percy Grainger’s home in White Plains, New York. His companion on the trip was the co-founder of the Percy Grainger Society, Barry Peter Ould, nicknamed Bipo, a clear allusion to the Marx Brothers. Three of the movements portray Bipo’s escapades: his Dance, his Sleepo and his Ear-Pop. Other folk are portrayed too. A Balow for Balough nods to Teresa Balough who published the first catalogue of Grainger’s music. Ulla’s and Ella’s Hike refers to Grainger’s niece and to his wife, and their daily walks around the veranda of the house. The Suite is a sheer pleasure to hear: it should be in the repertoire of all competent recorderists.

Dundee-born Wilma Patterson has contributed five Little Cynical Songs to this disc. First written as incidental music to a play by author Joan Ure (pen name of Elizabeth Clark), they were assembled here as a miniature song-cycle. These fetchingly tonal melodies are scored for soprano and recorder.

John Purser, doyen of Scottish composers and musicologists, has contributed Skye Blue, a lovely little number for solo recorder. He says that this is a set of four variations on a “simple fourteen bar theme”, which “share the characteristics with those of the piobaireachd – the classical music of the Highland bagpipe”. The last time I visited the Isle of Skye, it was a perfect, cloudless summer day. Skye Blue sure evokes this wonderful part of Scotland.

Fellow Scottish composer David Johnson wrote a series of Twelve Preludes and Fugues for piano, of which we hear three. No1 uses a four-note figure echoing the pronunciation of the Gaelic word bheatha, “meaning life, welcome, livelihood [and] food”. It opens quietly, soon building up to a climax. The associated fugue is a “homage to Bach” with bluesy-blue notes. No 6 begins with a lugubrious prelude. This is a transcription of a piece Johnson penned in 1974, a setting of Hugh MacDiarmid’s O Jesu Parvule (O little Jesus), a Scottish-dialect meditation on the Nativity of Christ. The fugue uses a theme combining B-A-C-H, a fragment of a Hebridean lullaby and the German chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How lovely shines the morning star). No 8 parodies an old psalm tune, complete with piquant “wrong” harmonies, and the fugue is fairly “in the groove”. These pieces are delightful, non-academic, sometimes humorous, and always technically consistent. Ian Hobson recorded all twelve (review); I plan to get this disc.

Ronald Stevenson’s pleasing Three Improvisations on Themes by Emanuel Moor for solo recorder were dedicated to “my South African friend Katherine Moor”. She was a puppeteer whom Stevenson met whilst he was teaching at Cape Town University. The first two pieces, minuets, are noticeably short, mere seconds. The finale is a little set of variations, which masquerades as a gavotte and a gigue. Oddly, there is no mention of Katherine Moor or this work in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music, edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland (Toccata Press, 2005).

Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943) wrote both in braid Scots and in English. He led a tragic life; he was bedridden for many years until his death. The programme includes Two songs to poems by William Soutar. The first, Hallow’en Song, is a trippy little number. It suggests to the protagonist “Do not go out tonight” on this most haunted time of the year. The Quiet Comes In is a meditation on life and death and the weather: “When the rage is by / The Bluid grows still” until “Whan the sang is owre / The quiet comes in”.

Prelude 29 is a tongue-in-cheek title for Edward McGuire’s attractive little study. It is a supplement to his two sets of twenty-four preludes written for a wide variety of instruments. The piece, specially commissioned for this disc, was inspired by David Betteridge’s poem Not to be Hushed (In memory of Ronald Stevenson). The final lines suggest that Stevenson will “not to be hushed ever/given a world attuned to hear”. Hopefully, an appropriate epitaph.

In the last two works, we return to Percy Grainger. Ronald Stevenson arranged for two descant recorders and piano, his Over the Hills and Far Away (Children’s March) for piano. There follows Grainger’s yet another rendition of Country Gardens, now for two descant recorders. It brings the recital to a charming conclusion.

This is a splendid programme. The repertoire is original and interesting. All performances are superb. Special mention must be made of John Turner’s fine playing on the recorder and of Lesley-Jane Rogers’s beautiful, clear soprano voice. The recording compliments the performance. The booklet includes detailed information about the composers, the music and the performers. (The quotations in my review are taken from the booklet, with thanks.) All the texts of the songs are given, including translations of the Lallans Scots poems.

This is an outstanding collection of music by Ronald Stevenson and some of his friends. It is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest, but sadly underrated, British composers of the last hundred years.

John France

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Percy Grainger (1882-1961)
Country Gardens, for descant recorder and treble recorder (1947)
Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015)
A Year Owre Young, for soprano and violin (1987)
To Autumn, for soprano and recorder (1965)
Celtic Triptych, for solo recorder (2010):
Slow Air; Strathspey (Scottish Dance); Twelve-note jig (Giga dodecafonica)
A Wee Holiday Suite, for recorder and piano (1978):
Bipo’s Dance; A Balow for a Balough; Bipo’s sleepo; Ulla’s and Ella’s Veranda-Hike; Bipo’s ear-pop
Wilma Paterson (b. 1944)
Little Cynical Songs, for soprano and tenor recorder (1969):
Nostalgia for Sweet Friendship; The Little Goddess Pan; Torch Song for Dead Love; Weave me; Happy Ending Song
John Purser (b. 1942)
Skye Blue, for solo recorder (2019)
David Johnson (1942-2009)
Preludes and Fugues from Twelve Preludes and Fugues for piano (1992-1995): No 1 in B-flat; No 6 in G; and No 8 in F
Ronald Stevenson
Three Improvisations on Themes by Emanuel Moor, for solo recorder (1986):
Allegro Moderato; Tempo di Minuetto grazioso; Andante – Tempo di Valse – Alla gavotta – Alla giga
Two songs to poems by William Soutar, for soprano and piano (1965):
Hallowe’en Sang; The Quiet Comes In
Edward McGuire (b. 1948)
Prelude 29, for treble recorder (2022)
Percy Grainger (arr. Ronald Stevenson)
Over the Hills and Far Away (Children’s March), for two descant recorders and piano (1978)
Percy Grainger
Country Gardens, for two descant recorders (1947)