Friday 25 June 2021

Scottish piano music: Christopher Guild continues his explorations with disc devoted to Francis George Scott and to Ronald Stevenson's transcriptions

Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music, Volume Five: Transcription

The history of music is never straightforward and that of 20th century music is often more complex and varied than simply those composers regarded as part of the accepted canon. A case in point might be 20th century Scottish music, where there have been several generations of composers who operated at something of a tangent to the main stream. 

Whilst literary scholars might be familiar with the 20th century Scottish Renaissance and the central figure of the poet, Hugh McDiarmid, the musical parallels are often less well understood. One of McDiarmid's teachers and a long-time collaborator was the composer Francis George Scott (1880-1958), known for his output of some 300 songs. 

But Scott also wrote piano music and the recent advent of Christopher Guild's recital on Toccata Classics, Francis George Scott: Complete Piano Music, is a valuable new insight into a composer whose output remains under-performed and under-appreciated.

Another of Guild's recent recitals on Toccata Classics is Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music, Volume Five and the two are linked because Stevenson's transcription Eight Songs of Francis George Scott is on Guild's Scott disc. Scott and Stevenson are two points in what we might term a constellation of 20th century Scottish composers, all under-performed and often under-valued. The two others are Erik Chisholm (1904-1965), and Ronald Center (1913-1973), and there are many links between them. Chisholm married Scott's daughter, whilst Stevenson was a great proponent of the music of the other three and included Center's magnificent piano sonata in his repertoire.

Thanks to the wonders of recording, we can explore all this music in a way which has not always been possible. Chisholm's complete piano music has been recorded on seven discs on the Divine Art label by pianist Murray McLachlan, whilst Christopher Guild's disc for Toccata Classics, Ronald Center: Instrumental and Chamber Music, Vol. I includes Center's fine Piano Sonata. So do consider exploring.

Ronald Stevenson's output for solo piano is inextricably linked to his monumental Passacaglia on DSCH (there are at least five major recordings of this including John Ogden and the composer himself, with Igor Levitt releasing his recording in September) and perhaps his Peter Grimes Fantasy is also moderately well known, but he left an enormous trove of piano music of which around a quarter are transcriptions. As a pianist / composer in the mould of Ferrucio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, or Percy Grainger (all three of whom he admired and was knowledgeable about), Stevenson both created and performed transcriptions in his own recitals. And these are a reflection of his creative personality as much as the original composers.

Francis George Scott: Complete Piano Music
Christopher Guild's latest Ronald Stevenson disc is devoted to transcriptions, all of Stevenson's Purcell transcriptions, his collection The Young Pianist's Delius and Bernard van Dieren's String Quartet No. 5 transcribed as the piano sonata that he never wrote. The Purcell on the disc covers a wide time period, from 1955 to 1995, but throughout we hear Stevenson's creative response to the challenge of playing such music on a modern concert grand. Not for nothing was Stevenson an admirer of Busoni's art, and it is via Stevenson's live performances that I was introduced to Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne. None of the Purcell transcriptions is in quite the same category, but they are free when it comes to texture and register, as well as Stevenson relishing the spicy moments of harmony.

The Young Pianist's Delius was a project which aimed to make Delius music accessible to the intermediate student pianist. Each is based on a Delius work, often well-known but not always, and it is very striking how Stevenson was able to capture the essence of Delius' sound whilst thinning out the textures to make them more intimate and playable. All the movements are relatively short, and the resulting suite provides a delightful 'moments with Delius' sort of feel, and thanks to Stevenson's imagination we never feel short changed.

The Bernard van Dieren quartet, transcribed as a piano sonata, is quite another point. Van Dieren's music is still under appreciated, and here Stevenson takes a quartet which is still woefully unknown and transcribes it for piano in a magisterial way. The labour took him over 40 years, and is perhaps a reflection of his own musical values, the importance of making music which he considered important. At around 35 minutes long, it is Stevenson's longest solo piano work after the Passacaglia and it remains puzzling as to why it remains so little known. After hearing Guild's stylish and magisterial account, I can only hope other pianist take the work up. I have to confess to being relatively unfamiliar with the quartet original, Van Dieren wrote it around 1925 for violin, viola, cello and bass but it was considered too difficult and he revised it for more conventional line-up in 1931, and it is this version that Stevenson has transcribed. The result sounds like piano music, often sounds like Stevenson and gives us a picture of one of these other streams of compositions out of the mainstream that I mentioned earlier.

The disc is completed with two lovely transcriptions of Van Dieren's songs, and then Guild finishes with a final Purcell transcription, The Queen's Dolour - A Farewell where the ghost of Percy Grainger seems to hang over the music.

Guild's disc of Francis George Scott's piano music introduces us to a different, but related world. Stevenson was born a Lancastrian but adopted Scotland as his home, but Scott was a real product of the Scottish borders and remained firmly anchored to Scotland. Despite time in Paris when he was taken up by Jean Roger-Ducasse, Scott's musical life was firmly based in Scotland though this included meeting Bartok who visited Glasgow twice (in 1932 and 1933) thanks to the offices of Scott's son-in-law Erik Chisholm. It is these connections that we can detect in Scott's piano music, much of which has been rescued from manuscript obscurity for this disc.

Guild begins with a bit of dazzle, Stevenson's transcriptions of Scott's songs. As a song writer, Scott has attracted much applause but never reached the mainstream and is underperformed. Stevenson made his transcriptions (which were created over a period, not as a set) partly as an act of artistic homage, but also as a way of making the music live in performance at a time when Scott's music was not being played. 

These are clearly Stevenson, his personality and the way he handles the piano textures, yet he keeps the feel Scott's music. These are songs re-invented for the piano in a way which is respectful yet imaginative, in the tradition of Liszt's Schubert transcriptions.

We then move on to Scott's own writings for piano. There are a selection of short pieces which seem to be either early (1903, 1910, 1912) or late (1948,1952), but central is Intuitions a remarkable sequence of 57 tiny pieces, few longer than a minute and many lasting far less. Some are untitled, and the manuscript seems unfinished, but Scott took some care with it and numbered them. The titles are varied, ranging from 'Lullaby' and 'Trumpet Tune' to six 'Riddles' and 'Farewell to the Highlands'.

The piece are never longer than they need to be, they remind you of Grieg in many ways. The sense that there is a folk tradition here, even if the actual notes are Scott's and the sense that the size of the piece does not matter. And as we progress we do seem to build into something a bit more significant, as the cumulative weight of the music gathers. 

You could imagine performers creating their own selections from the pieces to make shorter concert works, and I do hope that the release of the disc stirs interest in Scott's music.

Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music, Volume Five: Transcription
Henry Purcell - Toccata (1955)
Henry Purcell - Hornpile (1995)
Henry Purcell - Three Grounds (1995)
Frederic Delius - The Young Pianist's Delius (1962/c2005)
Ronald Stevenson - Little Jazz Variations on Purcell's 'New Scotch Tune' (1964, rev 1975)
Bernard van Dieren - String Quartet No. 5, transcribed as a piano sonata (c. 1925, rev 1931; transcr c1948-1987)
Bernard van Dieren - Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1925, transcr 1951)
Bernard van Dieren - Spring Song of the Birds (1925, transcr 1987)
Henry Purcell - The Queen's Dolour - A Farewell (1959)
Christopher Guild (Piano)
Recorded 5-6 September 2020, 5 January 2021 in the Old Granary Studio, Norfolk

Francis George Scott: Complete Piano Music
Eight Songs of Frances George Scott (transcribed by Ronald Stevenson)
Urlar (1948)
April Skies (?1912)
Intuitions (1943-53)
Souviens-toi? (1950)
Two Neighbours (1952)
Minuet and Trio (1903)
La Joie (c1910)
Christopher Guild (piano)
Recorded 24 February 2019 in the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton

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