The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson died in March 2015. He was one of the most important composers of our time, a composer-pianist in the grand tradition of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov, probably best remembered for his monumental Passcaglia on DSCH, his tribute to Shostakovich composed in 1962. Stevenson has been compared to Liszt and Busoni: he transcribed many works for piano, and he was also a generous supporter of other musicians and students. His musical language is also redolent of these composers, as well Chopin and Alkan, but always with its own distinctive voice and an awareness of his adopted Scottish heritage.
This new disc by pianist and academic Kenneth Hamilton, which marks the beginning of Hamilton’s survey of Stevenson’s vast keyboard output, avoids the really large-scale works, though the Peter Grimes Fantasy is pretty substantial – Stevenson’s own Lisztian operatic paraphrase, in which themes from Britten’s opera are woven into music of expansive, inventive virtuosity and vivid imagination.
The disc works well as a “recital programme” offering an excellent introduction to Stevenson’s varied oeuvre. Alongside the more meaty works such as Beltane Bonfire and Symphonic Elegy for Liszt, there are shorter works, including transcriptions of Scottish folk songs and Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull, which are reminiscent of Percy Grainger in the combining of rich harmonies and textures with period music.
Hamilton studied with Stevenson and his understanding of the composer’s personal idioms is evident in his masterful handling of this music: robust and sweepingly romantic in the more bravura works, charming and witty in the shorter pieces with moments of luminous delicacy, as, for example, in Stevenson’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s Lilacs, which is all filigree textures, echoed in the opening of the transcription of Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs.
Recorded on a Hamburg Steinway at the School of Music, Cardiff University, Hamilton achieves a warm resonant sound which is particularly suited to the more expansive, textural works, though occasionally a little too dominant. Overall a most enjoyable disc with comprehensive liner notes by Kenneth Hamilton, which draw on his studies and conversations with Stevenson.
PRIMA FACIE PFCD050 1CD