us financially by purchasing this disc from
Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928) Arrangements and transcriptions
see below review for track listing
Murray McLachlan (piano)
rec. Haden-Freeman Concert Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester,
21 October 2009 and 4 January, 26 January, 3 February, 24 February,
14 April and 16 April 2010 DIVINE ART DDA 21372 [3 CDs: 71.22 + 70.35 + 75.03]
In the nineteenth century it was Franz Liszt who really pioneered
the idea of piano transcriptions of major works by other composers.
This was not only with the aim of providing material for his own recitals
but also with the more laudatory intention of bringing to public attention
music that might otherwise have languished unheard.
In the twentieth century this mantle has been prominently assumed
by Ronald Stevenson, who not only championed much music by unfashionable
composers who were neglected by the musical establishment – Alan Bush
and Bernard Stevens, for example, although there have been many others
– but also added his own contributions to the music to render it more
pianistic in style.
On this three-disc compilation Murray MacLachlan can only provide
us with a sampling of Stevenson’s achievements in this regard; and
although the music is not as naturally adventurous as Stevenson’s
own compositions, everything here still has his stamp upon it.
There is indeed some surprising material here, not least the treatment
of Ivor Novello’s We’ll gather lilacs which forms the second
movement of Volume II of L’art nouveau du chant, which almost
sounds like an arrangement for some Palm Court or other but it is
a very high quality arrangement. Other music here is much more adventurous,
such as the Scottish Ballad No 1 which treats the theme of
Lord Randall with a degree of freedom that brings it close
to Stevenson’s own music, with a sprinkling of ‘wrong notes’ that
sound positively Graingeresque. The Chopin arrangements which form
much of the content of the first of these three CDs also have a decidedly
Stevensonian spice to them which makes them much more than simply
virtuoso display pieces; the arrangement of the Andantino
prelude [track 16] is particularly winsome and irreverent. His combination
of Chopin with Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumble-bee [track 21] is glorious
The second disc offers more substantial fare, beginning with the ‘concerto
for solo piano’ Le festin d’Alkan – echoing Alkan’s own title
Le festin d’Ésope as well as his contribution to the solo
piano concerto repertoire. Like Alkan’s own music, this is a real
tour de force demanding the most virtuoso playing. In three
movements Stevenson produces a whole series of amazing variations
and fantasias on various themes by Alkan. He employs a crazy variety
of extreme virtuosic writing which echoes Alkan himself. Alkan’s cheeky
sense of humour is also captured. The last movement produces a raging
torrent of scales and chords that challenges MacLachlan to the utmost.
The two Sonatas based on unaccompanied violin works by Ysaÿe
inevitably bring to mind Busoni’s similar transcriptions of Bach sonata
and partita movements for solo violin. Much more than simple transcriptions,
they fill out the music with pianistic figuration which enhances the
content of the originals. The employment by Ysaÿe of the Dies
irae in the Second Sonata (track 8) brings overtones
of Rachmaninov, but Ysaÿe and Stevenson treat the plainchant melody
very differently from the obsessive Rachmaninov, even when the music
comes close to The isle of the dead just before the end of
the first movement or to the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
during the second.
The Norse Elegy was written in memory of the wife of Percy
Grainger’s surgeon, and pays tribute to Grainger in the employment
of a motif from the Grieg Piano Concerto which Grainger had
championed in its early years. It is a beautifully poised piece with
all the freshness of a Scottish folksong, ending with some key-shifting
harmonies that startle and enthral at the same time. The Canonic
Caprice draws on material from Manuel Rosenthal’s Carnaval
de Vienne (which in turn drew from Johann Strauss, with Die
Fledermaus much in evidence) and is much more light-hearted,
not to say effervescent, deconstructing the theme with all the vigour
of Ravel’s La Valse.
The third disc opens with two basically straightforward Mozart transcriptions
which leave the originals harmonically undisturbed. The Melody
on a ground of Glazunov again hardly steps outside the parameters
of the original until some Stevensonian touches in the final bars.
The Ricordanza di San Romerio, described as a ‘pilgrimage
for piano’, pays tribute to Liszt’s Années de pélérinage
but again remains faithful to its model.
The arrangements of Purcell which follow are described by the composer
as ‘free transcriptions’ but there is nothing in the harmonic treatment
of these pieces which Purcell himself would have failed to recognize.
That is until we get to the Little Jazz Variations – which
may be more bluesy than jazzy, but are certainly twentieth century
although far removed from Jacques Loussier.
The Two music portraits are original pieces written for children,
miniature waltzes portraying Charlot and Garbo. Murray MacLachlan
in his booklet notes describes them as “among the smallest shavings
from Stevenson’s workbench” but they are delightful and welcome nonetheless.
The final three tracks give us three further ‘free transcriptions’
on Renaissance music, this time of pieces by John Blow. Again there
is nothing here which the original composer would not have recognised.
Murray MacLachlan has long been a champion of Stevenson’s music –
his recording of the two Piano Concertos has recently been
reissued, and is a magnificent achievement. His playing throughout
these discs is as masterly as one would expect, and he is superbly
recorded in a properly resonant and slightly distanced acoustic which
nevertheless allows everything to be clearly heard. In a review one
has only room to notice a few of the many felicitous touches in his
playing, but his delicate filigree in the Chopin arrangements cannot
be allowed to pass without remark, nor his whirlwind treatment of
the left-hand ‘contrapuntal study’ on the Minute waltz (CD
1, track 23). The pianist also contributes extensive booklet notes
which explore every facet of the music over a wide-ranging essay of
some fourteen pages, which add to the value of the issue.
It might be thought that three CDs of piano arrangements and transcriptions
might be all too much to be digested at one sitting, but in point
of fact there is such variety and imagination in the various treatments
of the material that boredom or fatigue never becomes a factor. Indeed
one might have wished for more. One omission that I do regret is Stevenson’s
beautiful arrangement of the Song of the minstrel from Alan
Bush’s magnificent opera Wat Tyler, but that is already available
in a performance by the composer himself. Incidentally is it not about
time that we had a recording of Wat Tyler, or indeed of any
of Alan Bush’s operas? There are certainly performances of three of
these in the BBC archives (Men of Blackmoor and Joe Hill
as well as the earlier work), and although Alan Bush told me that
there were a considerable number of errors in the vocal performances
in Wat Tyler these should certainly not stand in the way
of a commercial release. Another omission here is the Minuet and
Funeral March from Havergal Brian’s Turandot, also arranged
by Stevenson and recorded by him for the BBC. The BBC have at least
two complete recordings of Brian operas – The Tigers and
Agamemnon – in their vaults. Indeed they have an enormous
archive of live and studio performances of rare British music of all
sorts; if only they could be persuaded to release their tapes of some
of them, it would be a rare treat. Private tapes of some of these
performances can be found on the internet, but we really need properly
re-mastered commercial transfers.
Enough of tangential observations. Let us be grateful for what Murray
MacLachlan has provided us with here – a superlative collection of
some superlative arrangements and realisations by one of the great
masters of the keyboard. A big thank you to everyone concerned with
this marvellous release.
Komm, süsser To [Bach] (1991) [4.00] Prelude and Chorale [Bach] (1978) [3.47] L’art nouveau de chant appliqué au piano, Volume I (1998) [18.40] L’art nouveau de chant appliqué au piano, Volume II (2002) [8.15] Scottish Ballad No 1 (1973) [3.09] Fugue on a fragment of Chopin (1949) [6.57] Pensées sur des Préludes de Chopin (1959) [9.32] Variation-Study on a Chopin waltz (1950) [2.06] Etudette d’après Korsakov et Chopin (1987) [1.41] Three contrapuntal studies on Chopin waltzes (1987) [13.08] Le festin d’Alkan (1997) [27.12] Sonata No 1 in G minor [Ysaÿe] (1981) [16.43] Sonata No 2 [Ysayë] (1982) [14.17] Norse Elegy (1979) [7.59] Canonic Caprice on The Bat (1967) [4.22] Fantasy for mechanical organ [Mozart] (1952) [14.13] Romanze from Piano Concerto in D minor, K466 [Mozart]
(2002) [9.22] Melody on a ground of Glazunov (1970) [2.19] Ricordanza di San Romerio (1987) [4.36] Three Grounds [Purcell] (1995) [9.19] Toccata [Purcell] (1955) [7.26] Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scottish Tune’ (1975)
[5.10] Hornpipe [Purcell] (1995) [3.14] The Queen’s dolour [Purcell] (1959) [4.07] Two music portraits (1965) [2.11] Three Elizabethan pieces [John Bull] (1950) [13.04]