Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH is a magnificent pianistic tour de force unparalleled in the history of music. Its external dimensions are impressive enough: the largest single-movement work in the piano literature, 141 pages of score, eighty minutes of music, an all-encompassing demonstration of the possibilities of counterpoint on the initials of its dedicatee, Dmitri Shostakovich. But the music itself takes over, making insignificant even statistics as extravagant as these, for the Passacaglia on DSCH is one of those pieces that telescopes time: I have experienced several live performances of this extraordinary work, and have always been surprised to find it finishing so soon – what my watch then tells me has taken an hour and twenty minutes seems to have gone by in only half that time.
Stevenson began his Passacaglia on Christmas Eve in 1960, in his home village of West Linton, just south of Edinburgh, and finished it in May 1962. That year's Edinburgh Festival featured many of the works of Shostakovich, who was there in person and to whom Stevenson then presented a copy of the full score. It is perhaps the most generous creative tribute one musician has ever paid another.
The tiny building block with which Stevenson constructs his towering edifice is formed of the notes D, E Flat, C and B natural, which in German notation gives us DSCH, Shostakovich's musical signature, which he himself used on several occasions, particularly in "autobiographical" works like the Eighth String Quartet. With these notes as the basis of his ground bass Stevenson proceeds not simply to pile variation upon variation, as Ossa upon Pelion. The Passacaglia falls into three main sections, each of which is subdivided into smaller units, which give voice to Stevenson's interest in "world music": after the opening Sonata Allegro, the music courses through, inter alia, a "Waltz in Rondo form", suite of dances (sarabande, minuet, jig, etc.), bagpipe lament, nocturne, "Glimpse of a War-Vision", "Variations on "Peace, Bread and the Land", symphonic march, fandango, and much more, culminating in a gigantic triple fugue that also calls on the BACH motif and the "Dies irae". And though the structure is thus articulate, its effect is more subtly psychological than immediately perceived: Stevenson has gauged the listener's stamina, so that the ears, instead of flagging because of a constant flood of musical invention, are allowed repose even as they listen, and the music can carry the listener with it as it surges on.
The Passacaglia on DSCH has now been recorded four times, first by the composer privately, then in 1966 by John Ogdon for EMI (I keep hoping that might be re-released but there's no sign of it yet), and most recently until now by the composer again, in a double-CD set for Altarus that also includes Stevenson's Prélude, Fugue and Fantasy on Themes from Busoni's "Doktor Faust" and his Recitative and Air, written in memory of Shostakovich (AIR-CD-9091). That must remain a milestone: it has an authority which cannot be gainsaid. But Raymond Clarke's new recording for Marco Polo has several advantages in presentation, which will make it easier for listeners new to Stevenson to find their way around this mighty construction. First, it is on a single CD, which means that the sweep of Stevenson's imagination – and its own re-ordering of time – isn't interrupted by the necessity of changing the disc. And second – and this is a major advantage – the major sections of the work are separately banded, in no fewer than 32 bands, so it is easy to be sure where you are in the work; Raymond Clarke's notes, moreover, take the listener by the hand through the structure. Altarus presents the Passacaglia in just two huge bands, the implication being that you must take the music on its own terms – all very well if you already know the music or have a score and can follow its development. The playing of both musicians is astonishing, in each case a demonstration of how virtuosity can be made to serve poetry. The differences between the two are instructive: Clarke has a harder-edged attack, and his playing is that bit more "up-front" than Stevenson, whose touch radiates wisdom and calm.
Raymond Clarke has been quietly causing astonishment on the London concert scene for some years now, with a forbidding repertoire full of things like Tippett's Fourth Sonata, works by Robert Simpson, the complete Prokofieff Sonatas, Boulez's Second, and more, all of which he plays as if they were as difficult as scratching the back of his head. It seems difficult to believe that this is his first CD, so I hope that Marco Polo pile up his workload – I know, for example, that Clarke has presented the piano music of Panufnik in concert; now there's a good candidate for recording. Clarke's notes with this Stevenson release demonstrate that he is also a sympathetic, perceptive and stylish writer on music. This, in short, a CD that no one with the vaguest interest in the piano, the twentieth century or simply in good music can afford to ignore. Urgent recommended.
As further reminder of Stevenson's own electrifying and sonorous pianism, I see that Altarus have re-released his 1985 LP "Salute to Scotland", which really ought to be "Salute to Percy Grainger". It contains fourteen Grainger arrangements of Scottish folksongs (#4 of which, "This is no my Plaid", is deeply moving), Grainger's wildly inventive Scots Strathspey and Reel (which Stevenson plays with wonderful swagger) and two Stevenson arrangements, the first of a Grainger original, the Hill-Song #1, first scored for 24 solo instruments, and the other of his moving Three Scotch Folksongs (AIR-CD-9040; 45:03 mins DDD?; Full price ***). Likewise strongly recommended.
Copyright © Martin Anderson, 1995, 1998.
This review originally appeared in CD Review