Wednesday 2 November 2016

Kenneth Hamilton makes an impressive start to his cycle of recordings of the piano works of Ronald Stevenson for Prima Facie Records

The British composer, Ronald Stevenson , who died on 28th March last year, was very much a pianist-composer in the tradition of Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni.

Born in 1928 in Blackburn, Lancashire, England of Scottish and Welsh he was keenly aware of his Celtic heritage. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In 1966 he was awarded the Harriet Cohen International Music Award and in the same year received a Living Artist’s Award from the Scottish Arts Council. He moved to Scotland in the mid-1950s living with his family in a cottage in West Linton near Edinburgh.

Stevenson later went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Manchester College of Music as well as visiting Professor at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1985. He also performed and gave seminars at the Julliard School, New York in 1987 and made repeated visits in the 1980s to the Universities of Melbourne and Western Australia.

Stevenson was Vice-President of the Workers’ Music Association, a Patron of the Artsong Collective and of the European Piano Teachers’ Association, a member of the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain and of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, a Doctor honoris causa of the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

Of his vast output of compositions and transcriptions his 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano, based on the German transliteration of Shostakovich’s name, became his best-known composition. He presented the score to the Russian composer at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival.

His output also included a violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin, a cello concerto in memory of Jacqueline du PrĂ© and music based on the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. He studied the indigenous music of South Africa, performed with Peter Pears and corresponded with Percy Grainger and Gerda Busoni, the composer’s widow.

A number of record companies have taken up his music over past years, particularly his works for piano.

Prima Facie Records have just issued volume 1 of a projected cycle of Stevenson’s piano music performed by Kenneth Hamilton , a release that features three premiere recordings.


Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971) takes themes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The music moves through some dark passages as Stevenson conjures his own take on this operatic masterpiece, finding moments of broader rippling clarity and developing some lovely dissonances. Throughout, familiar themes appear through Stevenson’s textures creating a terrific, dramatic whole. Kenneth Hamilton is quite magnificent bringing quieter moments of austere beauty with an underlying tension.

Three Scottish Ballads (1973) open with Lord Randal, bringing a firm broad melody with some fine harmonies as the traditional tune emerges. Hamilton shapes this music wonderfully right up to the poetic coda. The Dowie Dens O' Yarrow opens gently, presenting a lovely tune with a definite Scottish snap, developing slowly and gently through some atmospheric passages before finding a more confident forward moving idea to lead to a hushed conclusion. Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry has a finely phrased opening before the music moves forward through some very fine rhythmic passages, full of Scottish flavour, to a sparkling coda.

Stevenson’s Beltane Bonfire (1990) takes its inspiration from the ancient Beltane or Mayday festival when cattle were driven through fiery hoops as a form of ritual purification. In this piece the composer conjures some atmospheric ideas with plucked strings imitating the Celtic harp. The piece opens with some energetic, sprung phrases before moving quickly forward with many rhythmic changes. A fine melody emerges through the tense, unstable harmonies before, midway, finding a simplicity as the theme moves forward with less drama. Later fierce chords arrive but soon a lighter vein appears before the faster coda.

Stevenson was a friend of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), living only a short distance from him. The composer’s Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1967) was written for the poet’s 75th birthday. Staccato phrases bring the theme before bold chords and dissonances are heard. Soon there is a more flowing variation of the melody before thunderous bars arrive as the music hurtles through some virtuosic passages, played here quite magnificently by Hamilton. Sparkling phrases appear momentarily before a slower passages where the melody is revealed fully. Hamilton finds so much poetry in the later stages before the staccato phrases re-appear to conclude.

The Symphonic Elegy for Liszt (1986) was written for the centenary of Liszt’s death with many allusions to that great pianist-composer’s music. The Elegy opens with a quizzical theme before finding a greater flow with many musical lines overlaid, creating a rich texture. This fiendishly difficult piece is played with such apparent ease and musicianship by Hamilton as he negotiates the most complex passages, worthy of Liszt in his most virtuosic pieces. The music develops some absolutely wonderful passages with Lisztian phrases emerging before a gentle coda.

Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann receives its first recording here. It brings a dark mournful opening as the chorale slowly develops with some haunting harmonies.  There are some terrific moments as the Fugue arrives before falling to a quiet conclusion. Here is Stevenson’s ‘reverse’ fugue commencing with intensity before slowly easing to the coda.   

The Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950) open with a stately, flowing Pavan that develops through some fine variations with rich textures and more intense drama. There are some lovely gentler moments in this gorgeous piece before the music speeds through some faster passages before the stately flow returns. The Galliard brings an equally dignified flow that is soon weaved through some lovely passages before finding more florid moments. Jig - The King's Hunt is billed as a first recording of the revised version. There are some fine rhythms as this music dances quickly and fluently ahead, developing some terrific passages with Hamilton providing some wonderfully buoyant playing.

Kenneth Hamilton includes a beautifully fluent and transparent performance, full of delicacy, of Rachmaninov’s own piano work, Lilacs as a connection with Stevenson’s arrangement of Ivor Novello’s We'll Gather Lilacs in which the former incorporates a figuration from Rachmaninov’s piece. Here is revealed Stevenson’s genius for creating something more than the original source with Hamilton bringing a fine subtlety.

The final premiere recording and concluding work on this disc is Tauberiana  where Stevenson has created a wonderful transcription of Richard Tauber’s song My Heart and I where he develops the theme out of lovely harmonies, finding such variety of ideas before a waltz appears with this pianist bringing a lovely lilt.

Throughout this disc one marvels at Stevenson’s creative genius, particularly in performances as fine as these. The recording from the School of Music, Cardiff University, Wales is excellent and there are useful booklet notes from Kenneth Hamilton. 

This is an impressive start to this project.

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