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CD Review

Bernard Stevens

  • Violin Concerto, Op. 4
  • Symphony #2, Op. 35
Ernst Kovacic, violin
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Downes
Meridian CDE84174 63:24
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Yet another wonderful British composer on a small label.

I would not have heard of Bernard Stevens, had not a fellow list member raved about this recording several years ago. Unfortunately, I thought he meant the film composer Leigh Stevens (not a favorite), and I held off. After a few months, it dawned on me that there could be more than one composing Stevens, and fortunately I found this recording at Berkshire Record Outlet. Even more fortunate, it's still in print, should Berkshire be out. Spend the effort to find it, particularly if you like the Walton wing of 20th-century British music.

Bernard Stevens made his first big splash as a composer while serving in World War II. His first symphony ("A Symphony of Liberation") won a newspaper competition. He created a sensation by taking his bows in his uniform. Stevens's place in British cultural life for many years was marked by his sympathy for Communism, although, as did many others (particularly after the suppression of Hungary) he broke with the Soviet cadre after the war. His social thinking later on probably fell under the heading of liberal humanist. Most people who knew his name thought of him primarily as a teacher. He had a noteworthy academic career. He never really pushed his compositions, and no conductor with a major career took him up. To some artistic personalities, this situation approaches the ideal: one free from the charge of careerism and hype, and the adherents picked up binding more strongly to the composer as a personal discovery. Certainly, that's how I looked at his music, at least initially, until I realized that without at least some push on the composer's part, I never would have heard his work at all. Stevens seems to have had a small output, but everything I've heard, at least, has been extremely beautiful and free of cliché. The idiom shares general features with a composer like Alwyn, although Stevens usually trades in clearer and more memorable ideas.

Stevens acknowledged in his early violin concerto the influence of Bloch, who by the way wrote one of the great violin concerti. Stevens's first movement in particular - while having little idiomatically in common with Bloch - nevertheless strives to hit the epic note. It moves in a grand symphonic sweep (similar in feel to the Moeran symphony), and indeed the line between symphony and concerto blurs a bit. Various composers, including Eisler, Alan Bush, and Rubbra, acclaimed it as a masterpiece and the equal of the Walton and Britten concerti. As far as the first movement goes, I think they have a strong case, but there are still two more movements to go. To me there's a notable falling-off after the opening paragraph of the second-movement adagio. The third movement comes out of the second without a break, and it seems as if Stevens spends too much time worrying over the transition between the two, rather than working each as well as possible. It reminds me a bit of the Sibelius concerto, where the first movement to me has always overpowered the last two. I don't mean by any stretch of rhetoric that either concerto is dreck, but they do seem to me unbalanced to the point of fragmentation - that the last two movements impress one as belonging to some different work.

The second symphony belongs to the Sixties. It comes from Stevens's brief application of dodecaphonic serialism. It is yet another indication of the strong attraction Schoenberg and Webern in particular held for even tonal composers. When one works in a chromatic, rather than diatonic, idiom to begin with, it's not unusual to want to work with basic materials which incorporate all twelve tones. We see this also in Britten, Walton, Arnold, and Alwyn, to name just four British composers. However, I doubt that if I hadn't said something about Stevens, a new listener would have known. It certainly sounds little like Schoenberg or Berg and a lot like Stevens always sounds. Stevens does this by first choosing his row cannily. It's a row you can hum, for it emphasizes thirds and fourths, rather than seconds and tritones. Also, Stevens has such a melodic gift, that the pieces he breaks from the row are memorable as well. Second, Stevens's vertical sounds come across as modern functional harmony, as opposed to a harmonic fog. Finally, and most important, I believe, Stevens takes care to respect the phrasing of song and dance. Not for him the rhythmic pea soup of post-Wagnerian noodling around. Phrases lead somewhere. One can follow the arc of phrases, because they hit traditional points and adhere to traditional shapes. One can tell where the serial equivalents of "cadences" are. In short, the symphony shares the sound worlds of the Vaughan Williams fourth and the Walton first. Serialism helps (but does not ensure) Stevens's symphony to sound exceptionally coherent.

Those who proclaim the goodness or badness of a work solely on the basis of its structural method miss the point. For example, Bach's Prélude "We always honor the ten commandments" is constructed largely from numerology. The time signature is 6/4 (6+4 = 10), the theme consists of ten notes, ten measures comprise the first period, the first vertical interval is a tenth, and so on. Very few people would claim the wonderfulness of the piece due to this somewhat kinky structural concern, although the piece could very well gain a lagniappe of luster and the listener a great deal of insight into the composer's craft once the method came to the attention. Bach isn't a great composer because he writes fugues, but because he writes great fugues (as well as great pieces which aren't fugues). I don't believe this proposition any less true of any other piece or composer. The work comes first and justifies (or not) the method, not the other way around. Therefore, we must answer the question of how Stevens's symphony acts on us without recourse to the jargon or to the polemics of serialism.

The symphony follows a traditional four-movement scheme (Andante, Scherzo, Adagio, and a presto Finale). The first movement is a bit unusual, for instead of sonata-allegro we get something like a passacaglia, where all the paragraphs take roughly the same amount of time. If we think of the finale of the Brahms fourth, the movement becomes less out-of-the-way. Stevens adheres to the traditional rhetorical strategy of passacaglias - increasing tension with each paragraph. The movement begins in quiet brooding, builds to a final climax, and then, all passion spent, quickly fades.

The scherzo rages like an angry wasp. The trio surprises a bit, with traces of a pawky Prokofieff sardonicism. In a general way, the Adagio unfolds like the Barber Adagio for Strings, with a series of upward yearnings and fallbacks - my favorite movement of the symphony. The finale - a rondo structure - follows without a pause. Its "theme" is generally a very quick, highly contrapuntal version of the Adagio's basic idea. Beautifully lyric "episodes" break in. Ideas from earlier movements reappear, usually from the Andante and the Adagio. The symphony goes out in a glory of percussion and brass.

Kovacic is a tremendous violinist, assuming the role of hero with graceful strength. Downes and the BBC Philharmonic turn in performances that at least have the measure of both scores. In short, they make a strong case for Stevens. If you like the "hard" Vaughan Williams and Walton, I believe after hearing this CD you will want to acquire all the Stevens you can get your hands on. That's certainly how these readings affected me. On the other hand, I feel these stand among the best works of the century, and I'd love to hear what a sympathetic conductor of a major orchestra - like Simon Rattle or Michael Tilson Thomas, for example - would make of them.

The sound is fine, though not spectacular.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz