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Piano Concerto; Oboe Concerto, Toccata Festiva.
Stewart Young (piano), Laszlo Bohr (oboe), Deanna Blacher (castanets) Cape Town SO/I Musicanti/Allan Stephenson
Claremont GSE 1563 See following note re availability.

We should be constantly grateful for the enterprise and diligence of the smaller record companies who promote the music of those composers who do not enjoy a high critical profile. The inevitable question is always 'Is their enterprise worthwhile?' The answer, as far as Claremont Records and the music of Allan Stephenson is concerned, must be an emphatic Yes!

Mr. Stephenson is English-born and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, but has lived in South Africa since 1973, working as 'cellist, conductor and composer. Claremont GSE have recorded a number of his works, mainly from the concerti which he has written specifically for friends and colleagues.

He maintains the rather unfashionable view that the essentials of all good music are melody, harmony and rhythm, qualities evident in the works on this disc. However, his music is often powerfully structured and always has a sense of movement and purpose. For all its immediately attractive surface his is not superficial or "wallpaper" music. The listener will undoubtedly catch echoes of other composers in these pieces, but if Mr. Stephenson has, like all worthwhile artists, learned from his predecessors he has also developed a personal and recognizable voice of his own.

The Piano Concerto is a big work, big not so much in duration (around half an hour) as in content. A dramatic call to attention from drum and orchestra, a short and massive cadenza from the soloist, and the work launches straight into a powerful and memorable first subject. There is almost no transition before piano and strings then sing a passionately romantic second theme. There is neither padding nor meandering in this concerto, even in the brief moments of relaxation. The music moves on with direct purpose from first bar to last. Even the cadenza-like solo near the end of the movement, in which the romantic theme is expanded and discussed, has a sense of momentum and urgency.

The second movement is a Poco Adagio with a scherzando middle section. In his notes the dedicatee and performer in this recording of the Concerto, Stewart Young, writes of elements of popular music that resemble film music. But the only passage that to me remotely recalls the silver screen comes at the beginning of this movement; and perhaps that is only because the films have borrowed so extensively from the language of the big romantic concerto. The gossamer delicacy of the Scherzando middle section is most effectively thrown into relief by the beautifully-scored reprise of the Adagio. And then all dreams are swept aside as the finale bursts upon us with something of the urgent mood of the first movement. Thrilling brass and percussion edged by a telling contribution from the xylophone help the piano to keep the momentum going towards a barnstorming peroration which must "bring the house down" in a live performance - of which this splendid piece deserves many.

Stewart Young rises to the challenge of what sounds like a very demanding solo part (I have not seen a score of any of this music) with whole-hearted commitment and a mercurial response to the swiftly-changing moods and textures of the score. We can assume that with the composer at the helm the performance is completely idiomatic. A couple of places of less-than-ideal balance between soloist and orchestra can probably be attributed to the circumstances of a live concert-hall performance.

For all its excellences, a romantic piano concerto must compete for attention in a crowded market-place. There are no such constraints on accepting an oboe concerto into a much more limited repertoire, and any oboist ought to be glad of an addition such as Mr. Stephenson's piece. Any oboist, that is, with the formidable technique necessary to cope with its difficulties. But they are the difficulties proper to the instrument. Allan Stephenson never asks his soloists to torture unnatural sounds from their instruments, and he has a knack of penetrating to the soul of each one. Any player or listener who loves the oboe concertos of Strauss and Vaughan Williams will be at home immediately with this one. (There is a delightful moment in the finale which is first cousin to The March past of the Kitchen Utensils.)

The first movement is a somewhat unconventional sonata-form, lavish with tunes and containing a conventional cadenza, though it appears rather unexpectedly. Mr. Stephenson has the rare gift of writing songful slow movements which go straight to the heart, and this concerto is graced with one such: an aria in the rhythm of a slow siciliano in which the oboe decorates a melody which haunts the memory for days after a hearing. The finale is both substantial and light-heartedly tuneful, with a formally satisfying reference back to the first movement and incorporating another demanding cadenza.

The soloist and dedicatee, Laszlo Bohr, treats the difficulties of his part as if they were of no account, though I wish the recording were a little kinder to his tone, especially in the lovely lines of the slow movement. In the same way, the lack of bloom on the strings of I Musicanti must, I think, be laid on the recording rather than in any deficiency on the part of the supple and responsive players.

The Toccata Festiva is something of a jeu d'esprit. Works for solo castanets and orchestra must be fairly thin on the ground. This one was written for Deanna Blacher, who gives us the works: zapateado foot-stamping and (just-audible) skirt-swishing as well as the gypsy eloquence of the castanets. The Toccata, of course, pays homage to the Spanish tradition, and gives us brief, tongue-in-cheek nods in the directions of Glinka's and Lalo's "Spanish" pieces. It also gives us another lovely typical melody as contrast to all the high spirits; a generous gesture from a composer so melodically fertile that he can lavish such tunes on a work that will inevitably have very few outings. The Toccata is very superior light music; and the Spanish accent is rather better than skin-deep. I live in Spain and a Spanish friend who has heard the piece pronounced on it as being 'muy autentico'.

The works on the present disc are not newly recorded; they have previously been available (though not for some time) on vinyl. The recording of the Piano Concerto dates from 1981, the Toccata from 1982 and the Oboe Concerto from 1984. The older recordings have lasted better than that of the Oboe Concerto. The latter has a fairly high level of background hiss, and the strings and oboe have harsh edges to their voices. But this should not deter prospective listeners. The digitally remastered recording of the remaining items is perfectly satisfactory without being spectacular, and we should be only too grateful for the opportunity to get to know some attractive and very worthwhile music.

It is greatly to be hoped that other soloists and orchestras will take up Allan Stephenson's music and also that Claremont will be encouraged to give us the symphonies.


R James Tayler


Apart from the above CDs, Stephenson's music also appears on
GSE 1504 Clarinet Concerto (John Simon - Threnody for clarinet & orchestra Priaulx Rainier - Suite for clarinet & piano);
GSE 1556 Concerto for trombone & strings (with John Simon (Zimbabwe) - Violin Concerto/Arnold van Wyk - Saudade for violin & orchestra Saint-Saens).

Other CDs include 1509 Van Wyk - Symphonies 1 2/Primavera; 1525 Van Wyk - 5 Elegies, String Quartet/Duo Concertante for viola & piano; 1538 Hubert du Plessis - Malay Scenes/Symphony; 1546 Stefans Grove - Afrika Hymnus/Songs & Dances from Africa and Nonyana for piano/Viola Sonata; 1526 Thomas Rajna - Piano Concerto No.2/Harp Concerto; 1565 Du Plessis & Grove - String Quartets and many other issues plus their historical series of great artists and performances; of more classical repertoire.

Any of these may be ordered through the Hon. Treasurer of the British Music Society at

S C, TROWELL, 7 Tudor Gardens UPMINSTER, ESSEX RM14 3DE, 01708 224795 at a special airmail inclusive price of £11 per CD. Goods will be despatched direct from South Africa and BMS members are responsible for paying any import duty etc. due on receipt (often not collected). Complete catalogue available from the Hon Treasurer who will try to answer any questions.



R James Tayler

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