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Ronald STEVENSON (1928–2015)
Piano Music - Volume Three
African Twi-Tune: The Bantu and Akrikaaner National Hymns Combined (1964) [1:40]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Hill Song No. 1 (transcr. Stevenson, 1960) [1:13]
Sounding Strings (1979) [19:16]
Chinese Folk-Song Suite (1965) [12:44]
Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite (1965) [6:04]
Traditional (arr. Stevenson)
Bonny at Morn (1990) [3:47]
The High Road to Linton (1978) [2:31]
Barra Flyting Toccata (1980) [1:46]
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 2018, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton

Recent interest in Ronald Stevenson can only be a cause for celebration: Toccata Classics has this ongoing series (a fourth volume has been released - reviews - and a fifth is apparently planned). Both Murray McLachlan and Kenneth Hamilton have championed his music, and now Christopher Guild adds distinctive performances to the list.

This particular volume explores Stevenson’s relationship to folk music, and not only that of his adopted homeland of Scotland (he was born in Blackburn) but also that of South Africa, China and Ghana. The African Twi-Tune is a short piece combining two separate anthems: God Bless Africa (based on Joseph Parry’s Aberystwyth) and the Africaan anthem The Voice of South Africa (the South African national anthem from 1954-94). Thus, symbolically, tensions are heard in the same space and even to some extent reconciled. Guild’s realisation of the layers of this piece is beautifully done.

Inspired both by Icelandic sagas and the outdoor wilderness of Argyll, Grainger’s Hill Song No. 1 (no mere trifle, some 22 minutes’ duration) was originally for wind band; Stevenson transcribed it in honour of Grainger’s 78th birthday. This is a somewhat rugged piece that deliberately avoids development of ideas in the traditional sense; it is more a mosaic of melodies hewn from granite. The predominant use of the whole-tone scale adds to a certain distancing, countering the harmonic directionality of much Western music and invoking the idea of a solemn, slow processional. Stevenson’s transcription is masterly, and Guild brings to it a sense of nobility and integrity; one can almost hear the pride in the music’s geographical heritage.

The suite Sounding Strings of 1979 has a Bartókian simplicity about it, yet is more compelling (to me, at least) than the Hungarian master’s Mikrokosmos. Hard to erase memories of Terry Wogan in “The Floral Dance,” to be sure, and perhaps therein lies the key to that perceived mismatch: the material is closer to an Englishman’s heart and therefore takes on a deeper level of resonance. Perhaps a native Hungarian, therefore, would feel precisely the reverse. Whatever the case, Sounding Strings is a glorious meander down folk tunes from Wales, Cornwall (that Floral Dance), the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, Brittany and even a Hebridean carol from South Uist. Christopher Guild’s sense of rhythm is infectious: just listen to the Hebridean Dance-song, “The Cockle-gatherer”. But he can carry melancholy, too, in his performance of what many know as “Danny Boy” or “Londonderry Air” (here “Tune from County Derry: Irish Air”) or in the final piece, “The Christ Child’s Lullaby” (that Hebridean carol), contrasting the latter with the dissonant ruggedness of the drone-based “Le Basse-Breton: Folk Dance from Brittany”.

Positing a link between Scotland’s and the Far East’s indigenous music via the use of the pentatonic scale, Stevenson had no problems creating a Chinese Folk-Song Suite, taking his source material from two sources: the Archive at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (where Stevenson was visiting professor for two months in 1985) and Grigorij Schneerson’s Die Musikkultur Chinas. The piece is far more than mere chinoiserie; and within that deepening is the epicenter of “The War-widow’s Lament”. Marked Lento, initially this movement feels like something of a processional, into which weaves the tune; maybe there are parallels to be made with Chopin’s funeral march from the Second Sonata, in that both pieces use textural aggregations to ratchet up the intensity ever further. Both pieces, certainly, have a sense of inevitability to them. Absolutely no missing the geographical location implied by “Beautiful Fresh Flower” (this piece was also set by Grainger, and was actually the catalyst for the suite in toto).

A series of three folksongs make up the 1965 Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite. The source material here was encountered by Stevenson while he was living in South Africa. Absolutely contemporaneous with the Chinese Folk-Song Suite, it is notable how Stevenson captures the flavour, the “salt,” of each territory so well, creating two highly contrastive pieces, while maintaining his own voice. The limpid central “Consolation” is remarkably powerful in its understatement, something Guild realizes perfectly. At times, the harmonies seem to positively glow from within; the gritty “Leopard Dance” that follows is in perfect contrast, and how expert Guild’s staccato here, perfectly judged each and every one.

The three final offerings bring us closer to home, with the Northumberland folk-song Bonny at Morn garlanded with trills and nuanced with near-Impressionist clouds of sound colour. Even closer to Stevenson’s own home is The High Road to Linton, as the family home in Linton was once the dwelling of Archibald Bain, thought to be a co-author of this tune. This is no easy piece (Guild’s sterling technique almost makes one miss this fact); it is also a highly delightful one, with Guild’s playfully stabbing accents capturing its essence. Finally, the ecstatic Barra Flyting Toccata, based on a tune Stevenson heard from the Barra folk singer Flora McNeil: a “flyting” is a match that involves the exchange of insults, in verse. No surprise then that the tempo indication includes the words “con spirito,” and this instruction is beautifully mirrored in Guild’s performance.

There is a plethora of first recordings here (the disc was funded by private sponsors): in fact, only the Grainger/Stevenson has had previous outings. Christopher Guild’s own booklet note, entitled A Musical Coalescence: Embracing All Humanity Through Music is incredibly thorough: the use of monolingual notes frees up a lot of booklet space, of course, space used here to the full. Superbly recorded by Adaq Khan at the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton this is a release that stimulates and entertains in equal measure.

Colin Clarke

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ John France ~ Stuart Sillitoe

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