The composer and pianist Ronald Stevenson has died
1 April 2015
Ronald Stevenson, the composer and pianist best known for Passacaglia on DSCH, reckoned to be the longest single-movement work in the whole of piano literature, has died.
Ronald Stevenson was a polymath composer, pianist and writer who will always be remembered for his mammoth Passacaglia on DSCH, composed in 1960-62 and at c.80 minutes still reckoned to be the longest single-movement work in the whole of piano literature. Paradoxically, this masterpiece was not truly representative of the rest of his colossal output (Toccata Press’s catalogue covered 78 pages and took three years to compile) but it is by far his best-known creation.
Stevenson was in the great line of composer-pianists that includes Liszt, Busoni, Paderewski (his personal idol), Godowsky and Sorabji. He was an extraordinarily gifted pianist with an individual touch (and what a touch!) and tone. For evidence, look no further than the two available recordings he made of the Passacaglia. Travelling the world as a touring virtuoso, though, was not for him. It was too much of a sacrifice given his family and the need to sit and compose music – which he did in his small study christened ‘the Den of Musiquity’.
His comparative lack of worldly, commercial success seemed not to bother him. He did what he had to do despite limited interest from the powers that be in the musical world. While recognition went to the likes of Maxwell Davies and Boulez, he scoffed at their composition techniques. ‘In Music Ho!, Constant Lambert said that the way forward in music was going to Sibelius, not Stravinsky,’ Stevenson once remarked. ‘He was wrong, of course, but I think it would have been a damn sight better if he had been right.’
In many senses, Stevenson was born out of his time. The composer-pianist tradition had virtually died out with the advent of recordings (now it is making a comeback) but that was of no consequence. He espoused unfashionable causes, not only an outsider but an outsider who promoted other outsiders such as Havergal Brian, Percy Grainger, Norman Dett, Bernard Stevens and John Foulds. ‘I feel very strongly,’ he once said, ‘that my aesthetic belongs to two circles of composers who were satellites round Busoni and Delius.’ He named Peter Warlock, Bernard van Dieren, and Sorabji. A one-time Marxist, his pacifism landed him in gaol while his concomitant refusal to do military service led him to work in a colliery school in County Durham.
He was born into a working-class family in Blackburn, Lancashire, but in essence he was a true Celt: his father was a Scottish railway fireman, his mother a Welsh cotton-weaver. At heart he was a Scot. He spoke with a gentle Scottish burr. He had Scotland in his soul and, though a true cosmopolitan, he was a Scottish composer. Since 1955, he made his home in West Linton on the Scottish borders, half and hour’s bus ride from Edinburgh.
Stevenson was composing and giving recitals from his early teens and at 17 began studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM) with Iso Ellinson who himself had been a pupil of Felix Blumenfeld and Alexander Glazunov. After graduating he spent six months in Rome studying orchestration with Guido Guerrini at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia.
In 1952 he married his long-time sweetheart Marjorie Spedding. Anyone who knew Ronald also knew what a debt he owed to her devotion and support throughout his long career. With little money filling the coffers at times, it was she who kept the Stevenson boat afloat by her work as a district nurse. Among his landmarks as a composer are the song cycle Border Boyhood (with Peter Pears, Aldeburgh 1971); Piano Concerto No 1 (with the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson, 1966); the Violin Concerto ‘The Gypsy’ (commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin) and a Cello Concerto written in memory of Jacqueline du Pré (premiered in 1995 by Moray Welsh).
On a personal note, I have never forgotten his kindness and generosity when I was researching my biography of Leopold Godowsky. We first met in 1972 at London’s Roundhouse during a rehearsal break for the world premiere (at the Proms) of his Second Piano Concerto ‘The Continents’ – the only time, incidentally, that any of his music has been heard at the Proms. Somehow, when he had a thousand other pressing concerns, he found time to answer my questions, and provide me with advice, names and contacts as though there was all the time in the world. I learned afterwards that this was typical. I treasure the letters in his idiosyncratic calligraphy, and especially the dedication in the copy he sent me of Song in Gold Pavilions (the collection of his writings published by Sun Press): ‘In unison of friendship and harmony of aesthetic’. Ronald Stevenson was unique. How lucky we were to have him in our midst. How sad his great talent was not more widely acknowledged while he was alive. His time will come.
Ronald Stevenson: 6 March 1928 – 28 March 2015
Pianist Hélène Grimaud steps up fundraising efforts for wolf charity
26 March 2015
Hélène Grimaud is giving two special concerts with the Stamford Symphony Orchestra to raise money for the Wolf Conservation Center.
Grimaud founded the centre in South Salem, NY in 1999 and is dedicating two benefit concerts to the charity.
The concerts, which take place at the Palace Theater on 25 and 26 April, are part of Grimaud’s current tour.
It was in 1991 that the French pianist’s interest in the animals was first ignited. She was walking a friend’s dog in Florida when she encountered a wolf. ‘She came up to my left hand and sniffed it,’ Grimaud writes in her memoir Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves. ‘I merely stretched out my fingers and, all by herself, she slid her head and then her shoulders under my palm. I felt a shooting spark, a shock, which ran through my entire body. The single point of contact radiated throughout my arm and chest, and filled me with gentleness, ... a most compelling gentleness, which awakened in me a mysterious singing, the call of an unknown, primeval force.’
First publication of Antoine Reicha’s Sonata in D
26 March 2015
Bold: Antoine Reicha© Tully Potter Collection
Antoine Reicha’s (1770-1836) Sonata in D – described by its current editor as ‘rock music of the early 19th century’ – has received its first formal publication, over 200 years since it first appeared in manuscript.
The work is the latest of Reicha’s seven existing sonatas to appear in a modern edition. Six are published by Symétrie and the remaining one, the Sonata in E flat Op 43, can be found in the Henle edition of 1971. Five of the sonatas published by Symétrie previously existed only in manuscript.
The Sonata in D was edited by Michael Bulley, who wrote an article about the publication of two of the three Grandes Sonates (1803) in the January/February edition of International Piano (No 29).
‘The Sonata in D has so many different things there’s bound to be something to appeal to every pianist,’ says Bulley. ‘If you like playing fugues, for example, then, ten years before Beethoven tried it, Reicha incorporates a fugue into a piano sonata movement. Well, that’s not quite right: in fact, there are two fugues in the first movement, and two of everything else, including two 20-bar passages of insistent repeated quaver chords. It’s the rock music of the early 19th century.
‘The second movement is a Funeral March, that starts off in G major, but then, in the Trio section, marches off into all sorts of keys. The finale is called La Folie, and that’s what it is: a mad whirlwind movement that alternates between a patter-song and a driving theme that relentlessly ascends and descends the keyboard, finishing with 33 bars of little grasshopper-like D major arpeggios.’
The work is likely to appeal to professional pianists and amateurs alike; although there are some difficult passages the technical level is not of the standard you’d find in, say, Liszt’s pianistic writing. The boldness of Reicha’s musical ideas will appeal to 21st century music lovers – it was this that first drew Bulley to the oeuvre: ‘The first music by Reicha I heard was a piano recital in the 1980s that included five of his 36 Fugues, of 1806. Having never heard of Reicha, I didn’t know what to expect and was surprised not just by the high quality of the music, but also by the bold ideas for that period. Since then, I’ve kept an eye open for performances and recordings of Reicha’s music, which I am happy to say are becoming more and more frequent, and, in the last ten years, have investigated manuscripts of his unpublished works, which has led to the recent editions of the piano sonatas, published by Symétrie.’
The sonata in D previously existed only in manuscript; Bulley put together a basic computerised version and worked with the publishers to produce the final edition. ‘We now have modern editions of all seven of Reicha’s piano sonatas that have survived, apart from three pre-1790s ones from his adolescence,’ Bulley explains. ‘Maybe they will be done sometime, but now we go on to other piano works by Reicha, some in manuscript, some in old editions.’
The Reicha revival continues.
Rare Rzewski performance at this year's Glamorgan Festival
25 March 2015
Robin Green is the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s 2015 Young Artist in Residence
Pianist Robin Green will play Rzewski’s seldom-performed work The People United Will Never Be Defeated! at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in May.
The cult work is based on a revolutionary Chilean song and is rarely programmed due to its complexity. The 1975 composition requires the pianist to improvise, whistle and use extended techniques throughout. Ursula Oppens, its dedicatee, gave the world premiere in 1976.
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! comprises 36 variations, in six groups of six. The piece has been compared to the Goldberg and Diabelli variations, and is one of the most significant piano works to be published in recent years. Click here to see Green performing the opening theme.
Green, who is the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s 2015 Young Artist in Residence, will perform The People United Will Never Be Defeated! on 23 May at 1pm at St Illtud’s Church, Llantwit Major
Angela Hewitt gives recital in memory of David Robson
25 March 2015
Grateful: Angela Hewitt© Keith Saunders
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt has given a special recital in memory of promoter and arts advocate David Robson, who died last year
Robson (1934-2014) had a passion for music and had been active in the North East region for many years. He helped to promote Hewitt when she first came to the UK some 30 years ago, and this concert arose from her desire to honour his memory. At the outset of event, which was held on 15 March by the Darlington Piano Society, Hewitt spoke movingly of Robson’s influence.
The ensuing recital was transformed by the emotion of the occasion into something well beyond any routine. Angela began with the Partita No 5 in G major by JS Bach. Her performance blended beauty of line with a consummate clarity of intent. The Sarabande in particular was rich with emotion, and the Gigue buzzed with vigour. The scene was thus set for an emotional Les Adieux, Beethoven’s Sonata Op 81a.
After the interval a searching performance of Op 110 rose beyond the circumstances of the occasion to remind us of the transcendental power of Beethoven’s music. The recital concluded with further music by Bach including Alle Menschen mussen sterben – arranged by Hewitt – and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV 903. It was warmly received by the audience, who were rewarded by an exquisite performance of the Nocturne Op 9 No 2 by Chopin as an encore. Robson would have loved it.