John France reviews Christopher Guild’s CD

(from musicweb international)
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)

Piano Music – Volume 2
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981)
Hebridean Seascape (c.1935/1986) [13:05]
Three Scots Fairy Tales (1967) [3:15]
A Carlyle Suite (1995) [20:18]
Rory Dall Morison’s Harp Book (1978) [17:04]
Three Scottish Ballads (1973) [9:48]
Savourna STEVENSON (b.1961)
Lament for a Blind Harper (1986) [3:01]
All works transcribed by Ronald Stevenson
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 5 & 12 June 2016(?), Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton

I was confused. When I knew that I was receiving a CD of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music to review, I mistakenly assumed that it was a second volume to Murray McLachlan’s outstanding triple-disc set on Divine Art (dda21372). I had already reviewed this CD back in 2013. As it turned out, the CD in question was the second instalment of Christopher Guild’s survey for Toccata Records. Preparing for this review, I was reminded that there is yet another exploration of Stevenson’s music underway. The first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s study of the composer’s music appeared in July 2016 (Prima Facie PFCD050). I have not heard this disc. Add to this five versions of the magisterial DSCH Passacaglia and several other discs devoted in whole or part to this repertoire, it seems that Ronald Stevenson’s piano music has suddenly become hot property.
read on….

An Appreciation

Given at the celebration of Ronald’s life at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh 14th April 2015 Mary Ann Kennedy I don’t think Ronald was a man who gave a hoot about fashionability – musically I mean – he was of course a completely dapper dude, tapping into the flamboyant showmanship of his beloved virtuoso piano-composer forebears and I reckon also, illustrating the bravura and panache that he perceived as being a fundamental part of the Scottish psyche, however deeply hidden these might be in some of us. But as it was for Karl Nielsen, music was the ‘sound of life’ to Ronald, and it is obvious that he cared deeply about people and place – about roots. His music he said was rooted in reality – he wanted to follow in James Joyce’s footsteps and sink his roots as deep down as he could amongst the people, the folk, in order to soar high above to the stars, and beyond. Only by being thus rooted could his music communicate directly – an imperative that went right back to his own roots – and his father’s desire for music that was plain speaking, without too much of the un-necessary twiddly bits! Ronald’s Celtic heritage – Welsh and Scottish – was at the heart of his deep love of folk and traditional music, a musical passion that would have been considered, certainly in earlier years, unfashionable. “One must go back to be oneself and make it worthwhile being”, he said however – and Ronald saw the infinite worth of this music of his roots – and its capacity to convey narrative, emotion, vision on a grand scale as well as in miniature, (… to be able to appreciate it as long-lived music, as opposed to long-form, as the wonderful pianist Mary McCarthy said to me just before we came inside today.) He said of himself, “I feel that I function at the point where extremes meet” and in this I believe he was very much like Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, the great 18th Century poet whose epic pibroch poem in praise of Ben Dorain inspired Ronald’s own epic – a true Ceòl Mòr for orchestra and chorus. Duncan Bàn – the ultimate outdoorsman – his great talent was for being able to convey the macro and the micro with equal joy and respect: An t-urram thar gach beinn aig Beinn Dòbhrain; De na chunnaic mi fon ghrèin, ’s i bu bhòidhche leam… The greatest of all mountains beneath the sun, Ben Dorain, but also populated by: An eilid anns an fhrìth mar bu chòir dhi bhith, The hind is in the forest as she ought to be, Far am faigh i mìlteach glan-feòirneanach; Here she may have sweet grass, clean, fine-bladed; Bruchorachd is cìob, lusan am bi brìgh, Heath-rush and deer’s hair grass, herbs in which strength resides, Chuireadh sult is ìth air a lòineanaibh; And which would make her flanks plump and fat-covered. I think Ronald had this same breadth of perception which enabled him to work likewise on the epic or the miniature scale, to value each in equal part, and to incorporate the essence of one extreme in the other. He grew up with a music that did this already, no surprise then that he would remain so loyal to this music of ‘roots’. He did this though in the face of a rather snooty contemporary music world that wanted discord where Ronald preferred beauty – fearlessness in the face of beauty as John Purser has described it – the beauty of melody, of word rhythm, of capacity to connect with humanity, to understand oneself. Ronald considered this love of one’s own heritage – a cultural nationalism – to be as much a contemporary concept as anything that flourished in the romantic 19th Century. In this he was the natural successor to Bartok and Kodaly, and to Janacek. But while Bartok’s lifelong love affair with Magyar folk music was devoted to the good of his country and fellow Hungarians, Ronald believed that an understanding of one’s own background was also the fundamental basis for a truly internationalist outlook. His was a world music before the term became fashionable – the world music of Henry Cowell, rather than Peter Gabriel, and nowhere more visible than in his second piano concerto – the Continents – a work that Ronald created with a desire to connect with every person in the globally diverse Proms audience that was to hear it for the first time. A young Eddie McGuire remembers the Scottish premiere of the work – where this international melting pot of music yielded up African drumming, an Australian aboriginal tune transcribed by Ronald’s great friend Percy Grainger, Javanese Gamelan, Japanese pentatonic scale, Afro-American spiritual, Latin American dance, Chinese folk song, Hindu raga – but it also gave you, if you knew what to listen for – Ronald’s great concern with the liberation struggles of various corners of humanity with references to the death of Che Guevara and to the Vietnam War, then in its final stages. All this was, as Eddie wrote at the time, anchored in the folk music of Ronalds’s own background, with a pìbroch Calum Salum’s Salute to the Seals inspired by the music-loving seals of Tiree and Calum’s serenading of them from the beach. And I can vouch for their musical appreciation, having done the self-same thing with Oran na Ròin beneath the neighbouring Skerryvore lighthouse! Of the Continents, another critic wrote that it was “As though the Indian Ocean was lapping against the shores of the Hebrides”, and that, said Ronald, tickled him pink! “I have understood that the secret depth one finds in our folk-songs, is basically owing to the richness of their untold harmonic possibilities” – Ronald’s advocacy on behalf of traditional Scots and Gaelic music was a potent one indeed. A BBC interview with Ronald from the late 70s revealed a really quite staggering snobbery on the part of the interviewer, with something approaching incredulity that such a talent would choose not to live in London, would indeed limit his horizons by living in Scotland, and would embrace a music that was essentially some kind of underclass. Ronald was of course more than a match for this – and his championing of traditional music was just a few years later to manifest itself in the form of a series of programmes for the BBC on the pipes, harp and fiddle – a series now regarded as a landmark by musicologists such as Stuart Eydmann. His greatest legacy however, in terms of Scottish traditional music is right here today. As he grew up with songs around the parlour piano, so too did Ronald and Marjorie bring up a family who made music, who created the means by which to make music and for whom music was at the very core of their being. That Savourna, Gerda, Gordon and the next generation again – Anna-Wendy, Rob, Miles, Emily and the others – should grow up with music – and the music of their nation – hardwired is the perfect testament to a remarkable couple – to a man who in the words of Thoreau, lived ‘deliberately’, and perhaps, as that particular walk in the woods was how Ronald described himself, it might be appropriate to finish with a poem by his son-in-law Aonghas MacNeacail: Sìth na Coille – The Peace of The Forest
có nach iarradh sìth na coille nuair a tha sinn sireadh tàmh cha b’ann iargailt gairm a choilich anns a chomraich seo nach cnàmh ach na seachain ceòl is dannsa na cuir cùl ri còmhradh tlàth dlùthaich ris an leug a b’annsa leat mar chéile chaomh gach tràthcuimhnich gu bheil brìgh na d’ bheatha ged nach b’ann gun strì no cràdh – allt do sgeòil ro bheò ’s ro leathann – inns’ a luach do dh’aois is àl bitheamaid gu moiteil cinnteach gu bheil duais am miannach stàth – ged nach ruig sinn cinn nam fireach faic an dùrachd fhéin mar bhàrrseadh a luaidh ’s nach gabh sinn spaisdir mach bho thàlaidhean nan sràid measg nan geug ’s gach sochair paisgte seinneamaid an duan gu bràth có nach iarradh sìth na coille tosd a bhiathas gréis a bhàird togail chnothan cinnt le togairt còmhla ann am buain a ghràidh who wouldn’t wish the forest’s stillness when we go in search of peace the cock’s crow here brings no challenge in this refuge that won’t decay but don’t shun either dance or music don’t reject gentle conversation draw close to the gem you’d wish to have as gracious spouse each dayremember that your life has value though you’ll live with strife and pain – your story’s stream’s too live and open – tell its worth to old and young let us be both proud and certain there’s a prize in seeking good – though the peaks may be beyond us see the wish itself as crownso, my love, why don’t we stroll out from the allure of the streets among the boughs and sheltered comforts let us sing the song for aye who wouldn’t wish the forest’s stillness quiet that feeds our bardic skills picking certainty’s fruit with pleasure together in the store of love – (together while we garner love)
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Obituary by Alasdair Steven

Ronald Stevenson, composer and pianist

In the Scotsman Born: 6 March, 1928, in Blackburn, Lancashire. Died: 28 March, 2015, in West Linton, aged 87. Ronald Stevenson was a prolific and influential composer and performer. He was a musical visionary and conceived works on a grand and imposing scale – two in particular reflect his ability to envisage monumental compositions. His Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano, written in the early 1960s (based on Dmitri Shostakovich’s initials) lasts 90 minutes and has been memorably recorded by John Ogdon. In 2008 the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of his choral symphony, Ben Dorain, based on an epic Gaelic poem. It had taken Stevenson more than 20 years to compose and was scored for two choirs and two orchestras. Stevenson could envisage music on a monumental scale and also in more intimate solo compositions; he brought to all his works a freshness and originality allied to a vision of life as a vast spectrum of human experience. The Scottish composer John McLeod was a close friend of many years and told The Scotsman yesterday: “Ronald was a giant of a man and a giant of a composer. He might have been more widely recognised had he lived in the 19th century. His piano playing was outstanding – his technique was phenomenal. I conducted him when he played the Greig concerto with the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra and he was tremendous. His playing and teaching has had huge influence on many young Scottish pianists.
“It was always fun working with Ronald. Everyone came away knowing more about the music than when you started rehearsals.”
Ronald Stevenson’s father hailed from Kilmarnock and his mother was Welsh. That Celtic background was to remain a lifelong passion. After school in Blackburn, Stevenson studied at the Royal Northern College of Music where he majored in composition and the piano – graduating with special distinction in 1948. He then studied orchestration at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome and in 1950 moved to Scotland, settling in West Linton in 1955. He was a man with strong left-wing political beliefs and as a pacifist refused to do national service – spending the two years in jail. Stevenson was a renowned musicologist and lecturer. He held senior lecturing posts at the University of Cape Town, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, at the Juilliard School, New York and at Melbourne University. Stevenson championed the music of the 19th-century Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni and in the 1970s presented a series of programmes on Radio 3 on his music, which did much to re-establish Busoni’s reputation. A BBC2 documentary followed. In 1981 Stevenson wrote an extended series for BBC Radio Scotland on the bagpipe, clarsach and fiddle music of Scotland. The Edinburgh-born concert pianist, Susan Tomes, told The Scotsman how much, as a teenager, she appreciated Stevenson’s “inspirational lectures”. She said: “Using wide-ranging examples from music, poetry, philosophy and politics he drew our attention to many valuable and perhaps under-acknowledged ways of looking at music.