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Hyperion Records

APR5650 - Stevenson: Passacaglia on DSCH
APR5650
Recording details: January 1964
Cape Town, South Africa
Engineered by John Landon
Release date: March 2008
Total duration: 74 minutes 32 seconds

Passacaglia on DSCH
Part 1 No 1: Sonata allegro  [6'07]  recorded 1964
Part 1 No 2: Waltz in rondo-form  [2'22]  recorded 1964
Part 1 No 3: Episode  [1'12]  recorded 1964
Part 1 No 7: Nocturne  [1'53]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 1: Reverie-Fantasy  [3'37]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 4: Symphonic March  [1'59]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 5: Episode  [0'49]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 6: Fandango  [1'43]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 8: Central Episode: etudes  [2'55]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 9: Variations in C minor  [3'36]  recorded 1964
Part 2 No 1: Adagio: tribute to Bach  [2'15]  recorded 1964

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.


Introduction  EnglishPerformance note
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

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