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Ronald Stevenson (b1928)

Passacaglia on DSCH

Ronald Stevenson (piano)
Download only
Recording details: January 1964
Cape Town, South Africa
Engineered by John Landon
Release date: March 2008
Total duration: 74 minutes 32 seconds
 
1
Part 1 No 1: Sonata allegro  [6'07]  recorded 1964
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Part 1 No 2: Waltz in rondo-form  [2'22]  recorded 1964
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Part 1 No 3: Episode  [1'12]  recorded 1964
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Part 1 No 7: Nocturne  [1'53]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 1: Reverie-Fantasy  [3'37]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 4: Symphonic March  [1'59]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 5: Episode  [0'49]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 6: Fandango  [1'43]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 8: Central Episode: etudes  [2'55]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 9: Variations in C minor  [3'36]  recorded 1964
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Part 2 No 1: Adagio: tribute to Bach  [2'15]  recorded 1964
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This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

The Passacaglia on DSCH is probably the most celebrated creation of the composer, pianist and writer Ronald Stevenson; it is not only a gruelling test of stamina for any pianist, but perhaps the longest continuous movement in the repertoire of the piano, a prodigious essay in an ancient and strict variation form.

Lancashire-born and domiciled in Scotland for over fifty years, Stevenson is not so much a survivor as the modern re-invigorator of the most precious aspects of the Romantic piano tradition. The son of a railway fireman, he was something of a prodigy, giving recitals and composing from his early teens. He studied with Iso Ellinson at the Royal Manchester College of Music but feels that he owes his real education as a musician to the discovery and close study of the works of Ferruccio Busoni and Percy Grainger (with whom he corres­ponded). Under these twin influences – and also that of Paderewski, whose music and performing style he deeply reveres – Stevenson developed into a virtuoso pianist of probing intellect, wide-ranging vision and preter­natural sensitivity of touch and pedalling.

A mastery of polyphony, the contrapuntal combination of voices, and the transcriber’s art of re-casting music from one medium to another are key elements in Stevenson’s creative make-up. The European art-music tradition seems totally present to his mind, as it was to Busoni’s; yet, composing on its Scottish edge, he responds equally to the power of folksong and landscape, in the hills of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Border country. (Stevenson’s West Linton home was close enough to Browns­bank to allow a firm, mutually enriching friendship with the poet over twenty years.) Stevenson’s output, like MacDiarmid’s, encom­passes the epic and the lyric, and in it, too, many voices speak, sometimes with direct, unmediated simplicity, in fragrant miniatures; sometimes in works of such scope, with such freight of meaning, they seem to embody in themselves a kind of cultural nexus.

Such a work, by common consent, is the Passacaglia on DSCH. Cast in a form that derives ultimately from a seductive Spanish dance (in Spanish pasar calle means ‘to walk the streets’), it weaves continuous variations above an unvarying ground bass. Stevenson forms his seven-bar ground from three permutations of the notes D, E flat, C, B: in German nomenclature, which calls E flat ‘Es’ and B natural ‘H’, this forms the musical monogram ‘D.Sch’ of Dmitri Shostakovich, who used it in many of his works.

This four-note figure fascinated Steven­son – with its introverted chromaticism, its rising and falling semitones mirroring each other and yet spanning the diatonic interval of the major third, it seemed to enshrine the harmonic and melodic character of his own music. Like the atomic nucleus whose splitting releases the power of the sun, it was to provide him with the basis for a staggering creative feat. On Christmas Eve 1960, Stevenson started sketching some variations using DSCH as an immutable ground bass. Conceived at first as pure polyphony with no especial instrumentation in mind, this beginning (two pages’ worth, at one sitting) rapidly opened up a kaleidoscope of possibilities, and the work took on an urgent life of its own, expanding root and branch. As Stevenson wrote in The Listener in 1969:

James Joyce, writing the section ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ in his Finnegans Wake, began by weaving a few names of rivers into his prose-poem and went on piling up river-names until the text was a torrent of over 500 of them. That is something like how I wrote my Passacaglia. I went on piling up variations over that ground bass until they grew into hundreds. I don’t know how many hundreds: I’ve never counted them. I felt the nature of the work was ‘aqueous’ – it should flow. And in the flow should be other forms, similar to what geologists call ‘aqueous rocks’.

Stevenson found himself launched on a year-and-a-half of sustained creative effort. The work was provisionally completed on 18 May 1962, and he was able to present a copy to Shostakovich when the Russian master visited Edinburgh during the 1962 International Festival, at a ceremony presided over by Hugh MacDiarmid.

The paradox of passacaglia form is that a large, ‘seamless’, continuous movement must be produced from the multitudinous separate building-blocks demarcated by the repetitions of the ground. Stevenson’s sovereign handling of his Passacaglia’s enormous structure probably rests, by parallel paradox, on his love of musical miniatures; each variation in this work is in effect a tiny composition in its own right. However, the seven-bar structure of Stevenson’s theme always implies an eighth bar – the first of the next variation – to complete it, producing an onward impetus that is intensified by the cadential motion of the cancrizans figure in bar 7. Thus, each variation requires the next, and the music unfolds under an irresistible impetus.

For all its huge size, like Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony or Wagner’s ‘Ring’, Steven­son’s Passacaglia simply imposes its own time-scale. The four-note kernel engenders music on a titanic scale. The Passacaglia on DSCH extends the tradition of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ and Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations, and of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, whose starting-point is a completion of Bach’s last, unfinished fugue from The Art of Fugue. These works present a kaleidoscope of musical characters by exhaustive variation of a theme, worked into a powerful architectural design whose intellectual and expressive apex is a fugue, or series of fugues, where the imitations and combinations of voices, episodes, inver­sions and foreshortenings crown the structure like the tower of a cathedral.

By accomplishing all this over a constant and unifying bass while accommodating a far wider range of musical reference and idiom, Stevenson has dramatically enlarged the genre. He shapes his continuum of variations into a Baroque suite, virtuoso études, a Russian march, a Polonaise, a Spanish fandango, reminiscences of Chopin, Shostakovich and Bach, a pulverizing evocation of African drumming played directly on the piano strings, a Pibroch based on Patrick Mor MacCrimmon’s Cumha na Cloinne (‘Lament for the Children’) and an immense triple fugue. Even this fugue, whose three subjects include the ‘Dies Irae’ plainchant and the musical monogram BACH (B flat, A, C, B natural) which J S Bach used two hundred years before Shostakovich adopted DSCH, takes place over the inescapable ground bass. It ought to be the work’s climax; yet the most intense and impressive music occurs after this, in the final adagissimo variations. These build remorse­lessly from a sculptured simplicity, by way of music marked ‘with a Gagarinesque sense of space’ (the Passacaglia coincided with the dawn of the Space Age), to a vast agglomera­tive climax that is truly the crown of all that has preceded it.

When provisionally completed in 1962, the Passacaglia lacked two sections: the Pibroch-based ‘Lament for the Children’ and the ‘African drumming’ variations. These Steven­son added in South Africa, where he had gone to occupy a post as Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Cape Town at the behest of another radical-minded Scottish composer, Erik Chisholm. The ‘Lament’ was composed in the spirit of ‘home thoughts from abroad’, like several important settings of MacDiarmid’s poetry he wrote about the same time. ‘To emergent Africa’ was inspired by the experience of seeing a Bantu musician in the shanty-town of Nyanga improvising on fifteen drums placed around him in a semi-circle. Both sections were added shortly before Stevenson gave the world premiere of the Passacaglia in the Hiddingh Hall, University of Capetown, on 10 December 1963.

In 1964, in Cape Town, Stevenson made the recording that is issued commercially for the first time on the present CD. At the time it was pressed on two LPs as a limited edition of 100 copies. This was the recording that caused Sir William Walton to urge the Oxford University Press to publish the Passacaglia, which it did in 1967. Meanwhile, Stevenson had performed the European premiere on 6 June 1966 as part of the Handel Festival in Halle, East Germany, and only eight days later his long-time friend John Ogdon gave the British premiere at the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival. Ogdon had already given the first broadcast on the BBC on 22 May, and in August he recorded it for EMI who issued it on LP in September 1967. Subsequently Stevenson made a second recording, first issued in 1988 by Altarus Records; in 1993 another, played by Raymond Clarke, appeared on Marco Polo.

The current recording, however, was the first ever made of the work, in the aftermath of its world premiere, and has a special excite­ment as well as being a breathtaking record of Stevenson’s pianistic powers at the age of thirty-six. The greatest danger in any perfor­mance of the Passacaglia, apart from the continuous and indeed mounting demands on the player’s concentration and stamina, is that it could become too shackled to the beat, flattening out the internal rhythm created by the manifold repetitions of the DSCH ground. There is no hint of that in this powerfully unified reading of the piece, which is at the same time imbued with a sense of ease and freedom. The composer’s spontaneous shaping of the decorative passages and his subtle and resourceful application of rubato are two elements that create the impression of the piece being created in the moment of performance.

And this freedom, paradoxically, is being manifested in what by most standards is a very fast performance. According to the Cape Journal of 11 December 1962, reviewing the previous night’s world premiere, Stevenson on that occasion played for ‘one hour and twenty-five minutes’. That is, 85 minutes; the score suggests 80; Stevenson’s 1988 recording takes just over 83. But in this first recording he takes less than 75, and this without any sense of rush or hurry, without any loss of scale, of the relative bulk and mass of the various sections, of the architectural proportions of the work. One cause for this may be Stevenson’s remarkable lightness and delicacy of touch, heard in this recording in the most multifarious ways, in the huge variety of interpretative situations the Passacaglia creates. He never lacks the sheer physical power the music often demands, and his accents and sforzati are crisp and biting; but he never digs into the keys – one is aware rather of the arm and hand as a single unit, floating above them, the fingers liquidly caressing the keys, with a resultant smoothness and beauty of tone.

Another striking characteristic of the recording is the very wide and perfectly modulated dynamic range in which every gradation from the score’s ffff to ppp means something different, and where the art of really expressive quiet playing is fully expounded. And the wealth of tone-colour that Stevenson conjures from the instrument is truly astonish­ing – this is one of those recordings in which the piano really is made to sound like an orchestra, just as the Passacaglia itself offers many places where it mimics orchestral sonority of strings, brass and woodwind. As I write these words (in January 2008) I have just learned that Stevenson, now approaching his eightieth birthday, is currently engaged in making an orchestral version of sections from this magnum opus. The protean Passacaglia continues to suggest new possibilities.

Malcolm MacDonald 2008

Composer’s note from the original LP issue
Composition of my Passacaglia was begun in West Linton, Scotland, on Christmas Eve 1960 and finished there on May 18th, 1962. I presented a bound copy of the work to its dedicatee, Shostakovich, in his suite in the George Hotel, Edinburgh, during the Edinburgh Festival of 1962. The chairman was the Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. The ceremony was televised by the B.B.C. The work was revised in Cape Town, in December 1963 and the com­poser was pianist in the première at the Hiddingh Hall, Cape Town on December 10th 1963.

This composition is a strict Passacaglia because it is based on a constantly repeated theme, around which variations are woven. It is not a strict Passacaglia in that it does not keep to one key or one mood. It consists of hundreds of variations and is probably the longest single movement in piano literature (duration approxi­mately 1 hour 20 minutes). The length has no virtue except that it allows the work to unfold in a kind of musical fresco. Though the work is sometimes motivated by extra-musical ideas, these are not essential to its appreciation.

The ground is immediately stated. It consists of 4 notes and 7 bars in 3/4 time. The 4 notes are the initials of D. Shostakovich in the German spelling (D S C H that is, D, E flat, C, B on the piano). Then begins a ‘telescoped’ sonata movement: that is, what would normally be movements are ‘telescoped’ into subjects, the first subject allegro moderato: the second, andantino. These subjects are developed in juxtaposition and the opening ground is recapitulated in canon. The sonata section concludes with a brass-like coda.

A Waltz in rondo form provides relief. Now the ground bass is the melody.

An improvisatory-like passage in gently lapping arpeggi introduces a Suite: Prelude, Sara­bande, Jig, Sarabande, Minuet, Jig, Gavotte and Polonaise.

The military Polonaise quietens and is followed by a dirge based on the 17th century Scottish Pibroch (classical bagpipe music), “Lament for the Children” by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon. Here his melody is quoted in memory of the child victims of nazism.

A quiet set of arabesque variations leads to a nocturne with bitonal elements. Out of this grows a passage of syrinx-like glissandi, played first on the keys, then on the strings of the piano. Then follow arpeggi glissandi, a pianistic innovation achieved by glissando between and over silently depressed super­imposed thirds. The glissandi finally dissolve into arpeggi.

The reverie is rudely interrupted by a “Fanfare—Forebodings: Alarm—Glimpse of a War Vision”. The harshness gradually sweetens into a peaceful mood.

An allegro section follows, based on a theme derived from the speech intonation of the classical slogan of Russia, 1917: “Peace, Bread and the Land”. This theme is uttered in the bass but soon pervades the whole keyboard and introduces a symphonic March.

The inexorable march rhythms are followed by a volante variation which leads to a Fandango.

A long pedal passage, marked “To emergent Africa” is based on drum rhythms, beginning in ruthless primitivism and becoming progressively complex. The pianist’s left palm strikes the bass strings of the piano in an evocation of tom-tom music. The frenetic sounds spill over into rapid cascades of scales.

Excitement is maintained in a group of variations which are central to the whole work, all fortissimo and exploiting a quasi-orchestral treatment of the piano. The extremes of the keyboard are used and the fists and palms are employed for explosive discords.

An expansive set of variations in C minor follows, with a hunting horn “refrain”.

An adagio tribute to Bach introduces the triple fugue over ground bass. The first subject is florid: the second is the B A C H motif and the third subject is the Dies Irae, marked “in memoriam the six million Jews”.

The work concludes with an extended set of variations, marked adagissimo barocco. A grand crescendo leads to the coda, which presents the initial theme in block chords. The peroration is broken off and the work ends in quiet reflection.

Ronald Stevenson 1964

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