RONALD STEVENSON: Passacaglia on DSCH – Ronald Stevenson, piano – Appian

by | Jun 30, 2008 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

RONALD STEVENSON: Passacaglia on DSCH – Ronald Stevenson, piano

Appian APR 5650. 74:43  (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) ****:

Composed in 1960-1962 and recorded by the composer in 1964, this audacious solo piano work by Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson (b. 1928) celebrates the anagram-motto of Dmitri Shostakovich, who himself found polyphonic possibilities in the figures (D-E-flat, C, B), that in their semi-tone rise and fall, make up an interval of the major third. Stevenson, an avid reader of James Joyce, felt that the many allusions to the course and intertwining of rivers in Finnegan’s Wake should find corresponding ebb-and-flow in his own permutations of the Shostakovich-motto.  Stevenson wanted an “aqueous” sound to permeate his winding variations, using the old Spanish dance-form that embraces a continuous transformation of a ground-theme. Stevenson’s models are Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica. The constant layering of fugues and counterpoint, in literal, inverted or cancrizans formats, provides a dove-tailed structure that likewise urges the music ever forward. At the same time, each of the variants is a kind of character-piece: a baroque suite, bravura etudes, a Russian march, a polonaise, a fandango, African drums, along with evocations of Bach, Chopin, and Shostakovich. As one uninterrupted movement lasting an hour and twenty minutes, it is a singularly grueling piece–John Ogden  gave the British premier at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1966. When issued originally, the Stevenson discs numbered only 100 copies of a 2-LP set. William Walton was impressed enough to urge Oxford University Press to publish the Passacaglia in 1967.

Set in three large sections, the Passacaglia opens aggressively with a Sonata-allegro, whose secondary motif proves rather lyrical of repeated trills and rolling arpeggios.
The music becomes a Waltz in rondo-form and a delicate Episode. The Suite (in baroque style) lasts over 11 minutes, moving from Prelude to Sarabande, Jig, Minuet, Gavotte, and Polonaise, with some ritornelli. The fifth section is a bagpipe-dirge entitled Pibroch: Lament for the Children and pays homage to poet Hugh MacDiarmid while celebrating child victims of Nazism. Stevenson makes it sound like a dark, staccato piece by Satie. Arabesque figures display Stevenson’s remarkably light, deft and segue into a bitonal nocturne; Stevenson, for the Reverie-Fantasy, even invades the internal strings of the piano, a la Henry Cowell. Like Shostakovich, Stevenson harbors fears about war, the Holocaust, the Apocalypse. He parodies the 1917 Russian motto “Peace, Bread, and the Land.” Various martial elements lead To emergent Africa, a decidedly primitivist  moment that wants the piano to be orchestral tom-toms. The cascades become virtuoso, Lisztian etudes, hand and palm striking the piano, the dynamic extremes as volatile as anything in Ligeti or Stockhausen. Part II ends with Variations in C Minor, homage to Beethoven, marked by a hunting-horn motif.

Part III imitates the lachrymose prophet in Shostakovich, the mourner of humanity of the Symphony No. 13, “Baba Yar.” An Adagio tribute to Bach incorporates that composer’s name-motto by way of a triple fugue over a ground bass. The Dies Irae subject from the Requiem Mass is marked “In memoriam the six million Jews” and deliberately imitates Liszt’s Totentanz.  No less “present” in the expansive third part is the spirit of Busoni, his layering processes coordinated by rigorous, structural design. Stevenson’s own dynamic range of performance proves quite striking, from ffff to ppp, rife with multi-colored, kaleidoscopic effects. No mean virtuoso, this Stevenson. The final, longest section–adagissimo barocco–demands a monster crescendo to a block-chord coda, all based on the initial theme, as done in Bach’s Goldbergs. The quietly subdued ending allows us to browse to the center of the accompanying booklet, a photo of Stevenson presenting his score to its dedicatee, Shostakovich, at the 1962 Edinburgh International Festival.

— Gary Lemco


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