Author Topic: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)  (Read 6157 times)

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Offline Lethevich

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Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« on: May 25, 2011, 01:57:19 AM »
Gotta centralise discussion of this fellow before it is swallowed by the listening thread ;)

I have so far heard his Passacaglia on DSCH which is simply a masterpiece in its style - I don't really feel the need to fight for this fact, or apologise for it: its impact on me was too strong!

On first contemplation of a 75 minute long piano piece of more or less one arc (though subdivided into 3 parts and 21 sections) should ring a few bells: Feldman (not minimalism), Rzewski (wish I could compare these two, but I don't know them - perhaps others do) and Sorabji. The nationality Stevenson and the latter, along with their ties to the pianistic tradition of which Busoni was a peak (and not least them both basing their two best known works on the composer's Fantasia contrappuntistica after Bach), invites comparison but offers more differences than similarities. Stevenson is accessable where Sorabji is obtuse, popular in tone where Sorabji is dense and wilfully confounding.

The thing that strikes me most about the Passacaglia is its accessability coupled with the endless invention. When I saw its length, I expected a Sorabji-style contrapuntal and fugal assault, but in fact the work can be easily listened to as a suite - each section well-characterised by itself and offering some startlingly virtuoso writing utilised to highly musical ends. Maybe the work's most remarkable feat overall is how it retains a magnificent forward view, continually pinned down by reiterations of the opening statement, and metamorphoses of it through other popular choices such as the BACH and Dies Irae.

Frequent moments remind me of Liszt, not only as the great showman but also the artist wishing to connect to the listener, to view their reaction to it (such as Liszt's apparent habit of briefly turning his head towards the audience during a particularly sublime section of his music, to enjoy the moment with them) - this comes across in the composer's direct manner of expression. Then the Dies Irae theme emerges at the end and my thoughts of comparing the music to him feel naive, as if this is too obvious. It also doesn't really work to pick out a couple of composers and say which bit sounds like who - Stevenson manages to form these influences into what sounds very much to be a personal style, which is all the more remarkable as this manner of heroic expression from a composer was becoming extinct just as his career was starting. I don't wish to paint the composer as a Romantic throwback - there are elements of extended technique in the work too - but overall, the language is familiar, and benefits greatly from this.

These are just first impressions, so take everything here with a pinch of salt and some of it will likely be subject to change. I suspect my admiration for the piece will only grow.

Edit: I don't like editing a message too long after it's first been posted because it resets the "new messages" feature, but I managed to surpass even myself by leaving both an orphaned word and a major grammatical curiosity in the immediate intro to the first big paragraph ;D Still awful, actually - but the day I can spell and punctuate will be the day I am no longer myself.
« Last Edit: May 25, 2011, 03:33:22 AM by Lethe Dmitriyevich Shostakovich »
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karlhenning

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #1 on: May 25, 2011, 02:14:37 AM »
Of course it reflects itself in a formidable challenge to the pianist's energy, but one of the piece's signal virtues I think is that it manages to press on, without real rest, yet without at all taxing the listener and his concentration.  The division into the three parts is structural, logical, yet they are not hermetical partitions.  And how Stevenson succeeded in keeping a seven-bar idée fixe so 'juicy' all through the span of a 75-minute work is a marvel!  I am utterly besotted with this piece.

Offline Lethevich

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #2 on: May 25, 2011, 02:18:36 AM »
It's that "must listen on" quality that I love most, especially as I went into the piece expecting something more daunting, academic, exaustively explored, and perhaps even pedantically integrated. What I got was seamless, but flowing sections of remarkable character - almost defiantly varied :)
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Offline Luke

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #3 on: May 25, 2011, 02:35:32 AM »
Sara, that is (as usual) a most fabulously-written and fabulously-listened response to the piece. You have a way of getting at the nub of things which I admire (and am rather jealous of!)

As you both know, I am a enormous admirer of Stevenson and his music (and his pianism too), and I'm so pleased if my mentioning the Passacaglia somewhere or other was some factor in introducing you both to the piece. It is an absolutely awesome work, and as Sara says, no need to apologise for saying so, or to hedge one's language - it's one of the great piano works of the last century, no doubt at all about it. As you both hint, it is partly the way in which it deals with these unprecedented questions of scale and form and virtuosity which contribute to this - the unflagging invention and the unflagging energy (of performer too - and isn't the man himself just the most fabulous pianist!?). But the compositional technique is staggering too - that triple fugue on the Dies Irae, BACH and Stevenson's own subject, all over the DSCH ground bass itself is just one, incredible example. There's a great humanity in this piece, as in all of his music, too. This is one point of contact with the Rzewski variations The People United Will Never be Defeated which I think Sara was hinting at. This democratisation which allows tonal elements and much more ambiguous elements to coexist without the slightest contradiction. In the Rzewski there are recurrent figurations which are functionally atonal although built out of tonal cells, transposed through the keys to produce a kaleidoscopic harmonic effect. Stevenson does something similar, often - there are, in the opening pages, for instance, cascading minor triads which slip chromatically through the keys in a very similar way. It's partly this kind of writing which gives both pieces that special feeling of rigour and logic being tempered with sensuous, approachable beauty. It would be interesting to make a more detailed and extended comparison...

I love the man and his music; my knowledge is limited, though, to the Passacaglia, the Busoni/Faust Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy, the Fantasy on Peter Grimes, the two piano concerti, the songs on the beautiful Delphian disc and two or three other CDs of the piano music. I also play or play through (to the best of my ability) the first three of those pieces at the piano. Far from ideally, I should emphasize, but as always having a working relationship with the music increases one's admiration a hundredfold. There's also the Toccata symposium on Stevenson which is, I think, the best introduction to the composer and his very individual world.

A great and too-little-known figure who deserves lots of listeners. Anyone interested in Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Sorabji, Grainger, etc. etc. will find him a very rewarding composer to explore. May the thread flourish!!  :) :D

karlhenning

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #4 on: May 25, 2011, 02:38:26 AM »
I was sure you must have experience playing through the Passacaglia. My hat's off to you, lad!

Offline Luke

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #5 on: May 25, 2011, 02:45:17 AM »
Playing through is very different from playing, though!!  I am sure the other two or three recordings of the piece are extremely good - they are by very fine players who know Stevenson and his works intimately. But there is something so intensely human in his own performance that I treasure - just the ploughing on, against all the odds, through all the difficulties. It is those rigorous, unbending demands of the piece that makes it so transcendentally difficult - bar by bar it is mostly do-able, but for such an extended period of time? It reminds of Alkan, a little, in this.

As I did on the WAYLT thread, I'd recommend the live CD of Stevenson playing his own and other works in Canada in the 70s - his pianism is not like anyone else's, IMO; one can really sense the composer, the composer's sonically imaginative and daring ear, in his playing. That's one of the best introductions to Stevenson of all, I think, that disc, because it includes two of his own best works plus a selection of very fine works by other composers (Alkan, Godowsky, Liszt, Grainger) which show part of one of the traditions from which he springs, all played by the man himself.

karlhenning

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #6 on: May 25, 2011, 02:48:27 AM »
Playing through is very different from playing, though!!

Granted, and I should say you're entitled to break for tea at two or three points, and no blame.

Yes, part of the admiration for this disc is the performance, and the musicality of the sheer will. Not detracting from the admiration for the composition in itself, not a jot.

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #7 on: May 25, 2011, 03:10:00 AM »
I intend to listen to the Passacaglia in the very near future. I have the recording by Murray McLachlan. In 1988 I went to London to listen to a performance of the work in the Purcell Room, organised (iirc) by the Havergal Brian Society. Soloist was Raymond Clarke, and I think the composer was present, too. The work was too vast to comprehend in one hearing, but the memory of hearing it live is still with me. High time I seriously renewed my acquaintance!


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Offline lescamil

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #8 on: May 25, 2011, 12:32:04 PM »
I've personally always believe that the Passacaglia on DSCH is a great piece to "needledrop", rather than listen to it all the way through. It is not a very concise piece that flows well, in my opinion. In contrast, the Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano (another long piano work) is a great piece to listen to in one sitting. To use a piece by Stevenson as a reference, his Le Festin d'Alkan is a better piece, in my opinion, as far as his long works go (at least of the ones I have heard). I've even found some long works by Sorabji easier to get through in one sitting, such as his Fantasia Ispanica. That said, I still love Stevenson, but I wish other works besides his Passacaglia on DSCH got more recognition. Here's to hoping Le Festin d'Alkan gets another recording. I only have a bootleg recording of Marc-André Hamelin playing it.
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karlhenning

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #9 on: May 26, 2011, 09:48:20 AM »
I've personally always believe that the Passacaglia on DSCH is a great piece to "needledrop", rather than listen to it all the way through.

I'm going to trust you that this is your reaction to the piece, to be sure; my own experience has been entirely different. Thus far ; )

Offline lescamil

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #10 on: May 26, 2011, 10:24:41 AM »
Well, it's just my experience. Maybe if I listen to it a few more times all the way through, perhaps my opinion of it will change. Perhaps it won't, heh.
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Offline k-k-k-kenny

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #11 on: June 14, 2011, 03:58:10 PM »
So pleased to see that RS has got his very own thread. I'd have liked to start one, but lack the expertise of those such as Luke who can actually play through his material and perhaps see it in a larger context than I.

I met him last year quite by chance on a train from London to Edinburgh. He and his wife were returning home from the launch of the book of his correspondence with Percy Grainger. We happened to be seated opposite one another, and fell to talking, as one sometimes does. "Ah, you play the piano, do you?" asked I.  A most charming man, in somewhat frail health these days. A great enthusiast for Busoni, Grainger, fugues and transcriptions as I learned during that journey. Which perhaps puts him a bit outside the mainstream these days.

Too little recorded, though I pick up what I can. In addition to the discs Luke has mentioned, I'd strongly recommend Murray McLachlan's Piano Music From Scotland, on Regis. 8 transcriptions of songs by Francis George Scott and 2 Scottish Ballads of his own, the balance of the disc made up of good things from Ronald Center.

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #12 on: June 14, 2011, 04:10:49 PM »
I have the Stevenson recital CD on APR which contain the Peter Grimes fantasy but, alas, no Pascaglia.
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Offline Luke

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #13 on: June 14, 2011, 10:30:14 PM »
So pleased to see that RS has got his very own thread. I'd have liked to start one, but lack the expertise of those such as Luke who can actually play through his material and perhaps see it in a larger context than I.

I met him last year quite by chance on a train from London to Edinburgh. He and his wife were returning home from the launch of the book of his correspondence with Percy Grainger. We happened to be seated opposite one another, and fell to talking, as one sometimes does. "Ah, you play the piano, do you?" asked I.  A most charming man, in somewhat frail health these days. A great enthusiast for Busoni, Grainger, fugues and transcriptions as I learned during that journey. Which perhaps puts him a bit outside the mainstream these days.

Too little recorded, though I pick up what I can. In addition to the discs Luke has mentioned, I'd strongly recommend Murray McLachlan's Piano Music From Scotland, on Regis. 8 transcriptions of songs by Francis George Scott and 2 Scottish Ballads of his own, the balance of the disc made up of good things from Ronald Center.

You lucky man! I get the impression that he is a very special individual, and I would love the chance to meet him. I second, BTW, that rec of the Piano Music from Scotland disc, which I was listening to a few weeks ago and loving very much. The Scott transcriptions are very touching, particularly.

Offline k-k-k-kenny

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #14 on: June 15, 2011, 03:11:22 PM »
Yes, I must say, I did feel lucky. He's a man of enormously wide interests in music, arts, literature, politics. He has suffered two quite severe strokes in recent years, and I suspect that these prevent him from playing at all, except perhaps a wee bit for grandchildren.

We've entered into a fitful correspondence since, and his mind remains open and full of fire.

If you've not seen them, there are 3 youtube videos made shortly after his 70th birthday which are well worth a look. Here's a link to the first:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmHvB7zkbqg

Offline k-k-k-kenny

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #15 on: June 23, 2011, 06:01:24 PM »
And - the Ronald Stevenson Society maintains a web-site where you can find such things as lists of his published works, recordings and books at this here address:
http://www.ronaldstevensonsociety.org.uk/

I received yesterday an email from Iain Colquhoun, secretary of the society, who told me that he is happy to have email contact with any who seek more information, and that most of the books and CDs can be purchased from them. His email address begins with "info@ronald ..." - I dare say you can guess the rest.

So now you know what I know.

Offline Dax

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Re: Ronald Stevenson (1928-)
« Reply #16 on: March 28, 2015, 12:01:55 PM »
I have just heard that Ronald Stevenson died this morning, just three weeks after his 87th birthday.
A unique figure in British music: an inspiring man and a gentleman.