Stevenson friends 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]

Ronald Stevenson was one of the great 20th century pianist/composers who trod a path between modernism and folk traditions. This disc showcases him and his friends in music who shared his ideas and beliefs, among whom was the distinguished composer and pianist Percy Grainger. His best-known work, Passacaglia on DSCH, is dedicated to Shostakovich; he presented the score to the Soviet composer when he visited Edinburgh. The work has been recorded by John Ogdon, Raymond Clarke, James Willshire, Igor Levit, and, most importantly, in a legendary recording, Stevenson himself.  

Born in Blackburn in England – both parents had Celtic origins – Stevenson moved to Scotland in the fifties and made his home there until his death. He was inspired by a long line of great pianist/composers – Paderewski, Liszt, Busoni, Sorabji and Grainger – and wrote a huge number of compositions, including 500 songs, several concertos, works for the piano and for chamber groups. He never sought fame or publicity, preferring the peace and solitude of West Linton in the Borders, which served as a sanctuary from the stress of the big city.

Many pieces on this album are no more than a minute or two in length but each gives us a delightful insight into Stevenson’s world, typical of which are the opening set of songs A Year Owre Young and To Autumn, sung beautifully by lyric soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers accompanied by Benedict Holland on the violin. Stevenson’s settings of Blake’s Poetical Sketches ‘To Autumn’ are performed by John Turner on the solo recorder catching the luxuriant harmonies of the score, and Turner is the performer singing the Celtic Triptych most charmingly in the Strathspey and the Twelve-note jig (Giga dodecafonical).

A Wee Holiday Suite for recorder and piano summons up amusing images in Ulla and Ella’s Veranda-Hike, which describe the daily chore of walking his daughter Ella around the veranda of the Grainger home, while other sections make fun of Bipo’s movements in Bipo’s DanceBipo’s sleepo, and Bipo’s ear-pop (Bipo was Stevenson’s nickname, invoking the Marx Brothers, for his then publisher Barry Peter Ould). The final movement, A Balow for a Balough, commemorates Teresa Balough, who catalogued his compositions. It is difficult not to burst out laughing as Turner and Harvey Davies bring out all the humour of these miniatures.

Stevenson’s harmonies, poignant in their ephemeral intimacy, are shared in Wilma Paterson’s set of five Little Cynical Songs, touchingly sung by Rogers in Nostalgia for Sweet Friendship, and most affectionately in The Little Goddess Pan from texts by Joan Ure. The songs were written for a play by Ure staged at Glasgow University, since when Paterson has added to her musical talents by writing novels. John Purser is a composer, poet and the author of the monograph Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist and the award-winning Scotland’s Music. He has composed in diverse genres, including opera and the solo lute. Now domiciled on Skye, he presents an image in his Skye Blue of the remote and starkly beautiful island, vibrantly suggestive here of the piobairreachd Highland bagpipes and vividly performed by Turner on the solo recorder.

At the heart of this album are three of the Twelve Preludes and Fugues written for Stevenson by David Johnson. He was a uniquely gifted composer who never achieved recognition in his career. He was also a musicologist who researched the music of Thomas Erskine, the Earl of Kelly, and authored several books on Scottish music of the eighteenth century. Among his compositions are four operas, a cantata and several concertos, including several pieces for the trumpeter John Wallace. Johnson’s set of Preludes and Fugues are on the four note motif B (B flat), H (B natural), E, A, transposed from the Gaelic bheatha, which means life, welcome, livelihood and food.

The Fugue for Prelude No. 1 in B flat pays homage to Bach, yet has un-Bachian blue notes mixing major and minor modes. Prelude No. 6 in G is a transcription from Stevenson’s song based on Hugh MacDiarmid’s O Jesu Parvule that invokes the image of the Madonna and Child. The Fugue is partly based on a German chorale, while Prelude No 8 in F is a parody of a seventeenth century psalm, and the Fugue is a comic invocation of English holidaymakers at the seaside. Like Stevenson, Johnson writes tongue-in-cheek. They are masterfully performed by Duncan Honeybourne.

Stevenson’s Three Improvisations on Themes by Emanuel Moor for the solo recorder were composed for ‘my South African friend Katherine Moor, maîtresse des poupées, the niece of Emanuel Moor’. She was the niece of one of Busoni’s pupils, whom Stevenson befriended when teaching at Cape Town in the 1960s, and is sympathetically portrayed here by Turner. Stevenson’s Two songs to poems by William Soutar are from a volume of fourteen songs, the first of which, Hallowe’en Sang,is lightly humorous: ‘Dinna gang oot the night: dinna gang oot the nicht…’ while The Quiet Comes In is touching in its effortlessness and performed with great sensitivity by Rogers and Turner.

David Betteridge’s poem Not to be Hushed (in memory of Ronald Stevenson) inspired Eddie McGuire’s Prelude 29 (from his set of 24 preludes written for every instrument), which McGuire writes in his note are about ‘learning about the idiom and soul of each instrument in the process.’ This is a stylishly attractive piece by McGuire – the latest composition on this disc – voiced sensitively by John Turner.  

Stevenson’s arrangement of Over the Hills and Far Away was written at White Plains when he visited Ella Grainger on her 89th birthday and dedicated to his then publisher and friend Barry Peter Ould. To bring this CD to a fitting close is Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens in his second arrangement for two descant recorders performed by John Turner and Laura Robinson.

The recordings are outstanding in capturing every nuance of the songs and solo pieces, and clearly heard as if we were in the first row of seats in the concert hall. A 16-page booklet with English texts gives details about each work and full texts of the songs and poems (with transliterations from the Scots into English) and of the composers and  performers.

Gregor Tassie

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Previous review: John France (July 2023)

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)