Summary for the Busy Executive: Cool beauties.
Bernard Stevens belongs to a "lost generation" of British composers, most of whom began around the Second World War. These include Benjamin Frankel, Alan Bush, William Alwyn, and Edmund Rubbra. British cultural life has often been feudal in nature - one or two large castles dominating the landscape. Before and during the War, the castles belonged mainly to Vaughan Williams and Walton; after, to Britten and Tippett. Undoubtedly great figures, they have tended to block out other worthy ones. Britain in particular has been blessed with a truckload of composers whose work we are poorer without. Since they're all safely dead, ignoring them hurts only ourselves.
Formal clarity and clean, memorable ideas characterize Stevens's music. It's beautiful in the way of a Brancusi sculpture. It may remind some of Hindemith or Walton, though it's warmer than most Hindemith and not as physically exuberant as Walton. Stevens, however, admitted other influences - notably Ernest Bloch and Shostakovich, whose music doesn't sound like Stevens's at all. However, one does sense a similar striving for the epic note, even though the means differ. Actually, the composer he most strongly reminds me of is the American Walter Piston - a similar rhythmic athleticism, long architectural reach, and narrative drive.
The works on the program come from different phases of Stevens's career: the Dance Suite and piano concerto from the first bloom of maturity in the early Fifties, and the Variations from a brief flirtation with dodecaphonic serialism in the Sixties.
The Dance Suite wouldn't disgrace the title of "symphony," although it lacks a large sonata-allegro argument. Essentially, it plays around with strong and uncommon meters like 9/8, 5/4, and 11/8. The excellent liner notes by Malcolm MacDonald suggest a similarity with Bartók's folk-dance pieces. I kind of see the point but wonder whether it's just that all 11/8 in a certain tempo sounds similar. Certainly, Stevens's melodies and harmonies share little with Bartók's, apart from rhythm. The music dances, living up to its title, but it's not particularly light. The second movement in particular, a set of variations over a ground in 5/4, masterfully speeds up and slows down its basic pulse without losing its ties to the ground. Furthermore, if you didn't know the piece was in 5/4, you wouldn't even think about it, so sure is Stevens's sense of phrase. I find the slow movement the oddest rhythmically. Although it moves along in a blameless 2/2 meter, it sounds rhythmically irregular, as if made up of odd pieces. It's sort of the other side of Stevens's mastery of phrase length: in this case, the odd pieces always "come out right" in the end.
The piano concerto dates from 1955. He never heard it. In 1981, two years before he died, he created a new, shorter version in the hope that someone might take it up. It was a practical move only. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the original. At any rate, the tactic failed. Like all of Stevens's concerti, this one furnishes the soloist with an heroic part. The drama of the work takes place on a large scale. The emotions are big, but they are kept from the overblown by a composer who knows exactly where the border of easy sentiment lies. The work reminds me a bit of Vaughan Williams' piano concerto, at least in the striving characters of their respective opening movements. The second movement combines slow movement and scherzo, with a slow frame about a quick center. The orchestra dominates the slow frame and sings like a modern equivalent of Bruckner - almost religiously - with the piano injecting a personal note, like a solitary singer outdoors at night. The piano takes over at the quicker part. One could consider this a contrapuntal jeu d'esprit, with rapid lines of imitation and stretto, but for its character of psychological unease. The trouble affects the return of the opening material. The music seems to flicker out in an extremely poetic coda, but (as a surprise) really crashes into the finale, a lively and powerful dance. If you know the early violin concerto, he tries the same kind of transition there (it seems modeled on similar things in Beethoven and Brahms), but here he unquestionably brings it off. Highlights include a mighty cadenza, unusual in the run of cadenzas for its drama and its sense of continuing the argument of the movement (rather than interrupting that argument), and many passages of effortless, handsome counterpoint.
The Variations is indeed a serial work and probably the best thing on the program from the viewpoint of pure craft. First, it doesn't sound serial, or what most people think of as such. That is, it's not astringent, it's not a wallow in a rhythmic bog. It's beautiful in a way that shares a notion of beauty with composers like Walton, Hindemith, and Simpson. A listener who clings to 20th-century tonal music like a lifeline would not have to adjust his ears at all. There are technical reasons for this. Simpson constructs his basic material in such a way that it contains do-mi-sol triads. Come to think of it, the American tonal composer Richard Yardumian independently arrived at something similar. Yet Stevens sounds no more like Yardumian than he sounds like Schoenberg or Webern. He always sounds like himself. The individual variations are gorgeous - particularly variation 20, prominent with elfin harp glissandi - but Stevens, like most composers of variations since Beethoven, plays a double game. You can, for example, simply string variations one after the other like beads on string, without regard for the relative importance of one variation over another. Or you can, like Beethoven and his successors (including Stevens), think about the final shape of the resultant necklace. In short, you construct a symphonic movement out of variations. Stevens comes up with another wrinkle. His Variations break down into four sections - intro, scherzo, adagio, allegro: in effect, a one-movement symphony. He does all of this as well as keep up his serial method. Stevens's serial phase was brief, but potent. Everything in this period - the String Quartet #2 (Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD) 9097), the Symphony #2 (Meridian CDE 84174), and these Variations - stands among the best of his catalogue. He moved on, not because of his displeasure with the results, but likely because he had convinced himself he could do it without compromising his standards or himself. The work moves magisterially along, with all kinds of beauties along the way, and the beauties don't get in the way of the overall momentum of the work. I'd compare it thus with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.
I can't recommend these performances highly enough. Martin Roscoe plays the bejabbers out of his solo part in the piano concerto. Leaper and his band sound better than many a brighter name - taut rhythms, excellent for bringing out Stevens's marvelous counterpoint, lyricism that tells without jerking tears, and above all a sense of architecture. When you consider that these are in effect brand-new works, you can legitimately marvel. This is one of the best CDs I've heard this year.
Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz