Tuesday 11 October 2016

Kenneth Hamilton plays Ronald Stevenson volume 1

Kenneth Hamilton plays Ronald Stevenson volume 1
Ronald Stevenson Peter Grimes Fantasy, Beltane Bonfire, Symphonic Elegy after Liszt; Kenneth Hamilton; Prima Facie Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 01 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The wide range of Ronald Stevenson's musical personality explored in this fine opening volume.

This new disc from pianist Kenneth Hamilton, on Prima Facie Records, is volume one of what I hope to be a survey of Ronald Stevenson's music. This first disc contains a varied and representative selection of Ronald Stevenson's small and medium-sized solo piano works. Best known is perhaps the Peter Grimes Fantasy, and other transcriptions include Three Scottish Ballads, Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull, Lilacs, We'll Gather Lilacs and Tauberiana (My Heart and I), plus the original compositions Beltane Bonfire, Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid, Symphonic Elegy for Liszt and Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann.

Whilst Ronald Stevenson is perhaps still best known for his large-scale and complex Passacaglia on DSCH, the vast majority of his piano pieces were smaller affairs, many of them written for himself to play. The music on this disc makes you realise quite how out of time Ronald was, he was born just six years before Harrison Birtwistle, yet his music inhabits a different world. One not lacking in complexity but whose heroes included Liszt, Busoni, Grainger and Chopin; it is perhaps no co-incidence that these were great composer pianists.

The Peter Grimes Fantasy is a highly effective and dramatic distillation of the opera, a twentieth century take on the Lisztian operatic fantasy. Benjamin Britten reputedly was not keen on the way Ronald requires the pianist to play inside the piano, but to our ears it is very, very effective. The whole piece has the familiar Ronald Stevenson hallmarks of strong structure and bravura playing, with Kenneth Hamilton bringing out both with clarity.

My only complaint, true of all the works on the disc, is the piano sound which is a bit resonant and this makes for a sometimes hard, bright edge to the sound.

Next comes the Three Border Ballads, 'Lord Randal', 'The Dowie Dens o'Yarrow' and 'Newhaven Fishwife's Cry', written in in 1973. 'Lord Randal' is robust and complex, the richness of harmony complementing the serious intent of the piece, highlighting the drama of the poem. 'The Dowie Dens o'Yarrow' is quiet and haunting and for all the radical treatment, Ronald preserves the Scots feel of the music. 'Newhaven Fishwife's Cry' is a remarkable combination of rhythm and richness of harmony which can only be described as Grainger-esque.

Beltane Bonfire is an original piece (I dislike using that term as it derogates the transcriptions, but I cannot think of another suitable description), though still with Celtic links in its description of a traditional purification by fire. This is very much Liszt for the twentieth century in its combination of complexity and dazzling variety of textures, including some very fierce moments.

Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid was written in 1967, a BBC commission for the great Scots poet's 75th birthday. It starts off hesitant and develops into something really heroic, yet the complexity is learning worn lightly (something which could be said for Ronald himself) and it ends in the air.

The Symphonic Elegy for Liszt is the largest single movement on the disc (nearly 13 minutes long) and was composed for the centenary of Liszt's death in 1986. This is the darker, more introspective Liszt, the work is sombre and serious, and it is also Liszt with a distinctly Scots inflection. Kenneth Hamilton brings out a real sense of the work's underlying structure.

The short Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann from 1979 is a short piece which demonstrates Ronald's delight in structural complexity and his ability to combine this with a Romantic atmosphere.

The Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull are amongst the pieces which Kenneth Hamilton studied with Ronald. They are early works, dating from 1950, and he wrote a new ending of the final movement for Kenneth Hamilton. These are very much Grainger like in their combination of lush harmonies and period music, with a fascinating mix of textures. I found some Paderewski moments in the second movement, 'Galliard', whilst the final one 'Jig - The King's Hunt' is full of delightful charm and wit.

The final three works on the disc testify to Ronald's love of the more Romantic side to the art of transcription. His version of Sergei Rachmaninov's Lilacs is a delicate web of textures, very Graingeresque (my apologies for overusing the word). Ronald uses the same figuration to open his transcription of Ivor Novello's song We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring, and when the big tune finally comes the effect is magical, full of real affection. Though the glassiness of the piano sound is rather over prominent here. Finally Tauberiana (My Heart and I), a transcription of Richard Tauber's song from Old Chelsea, treated with real love and affection.

This is a lovely recital, blending many of the strands of Ronald Stevenson's music personality into a satisfying whole. Kenneth Hamilton is completely in tune with Ronald Stevenson's style, and full equal to the bravura demands of the music. In his booklet notes Hamilton comments that Ronald Stevenson was apparently unable to rite an easy piece if he tried. The beauty of this disc is that we forget the complexity and enjoy the music itself. I look forward to further volumes.

Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) - Peter Grimes Fantasy
Ronald Stevenson - Three Scottish Ballads
Ronald Stevenson - Beltane Bonfire
Ronald Stevenson - Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid
Ronald Stevenson - Symphonic Elegy for Liszt
Ronald Stevenson - Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann
Ronald Stevenson - Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull
Ronald Stevenson - Lilacs (Sergei Rachmaninov)
Ronald Stevenson - We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring (Ivor novello)
Ronald Stevenson - Tauberiana (My Heart and I)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
Recorded at the School of Music, Cardiff University
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

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