Singular Work or Singular Life’s Work?
Performances of Ronald Stevenson singular piano epic are few and far between, so don’t miss James Willshire’s in Peebles, writes KEN WALTON
1962 was a landmark year for the Edinburgh International Festival. It was to feature, in person, the great Dmitri Shostakovich, given a free pass by the Soviet hierarchy to attend the long-awaited Western premieres of his Fourth and Twelfth Symphonies.
The Scots composer Ronald Stevenson famously chanced his arm, travelled the few miles from his home near Edinburgh, and presented the Russian with the epic 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano he had just completed using Shostakovich’s own musical cryptogram (S is E flat and H is B natural in the German notational system) as the governing four-note motif.
Stevenson’s Passacaglia remains, to some extent, the signature legacy of a composer who cut a maverick and eccentric figure in Scottish musical life up to his death in 2015 at the age of 87. Stevenson, recognisable by his dapper chin puff, moustache and fedora, who lived much of his life in a modest West Linton cottage, and who counted among his friends and muses the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, wrote considerably more in the way of songs, choral and orchestral works. But it is the Passacaglia that tends to resurface mostly in recordings and concert programmes.
He once played bits of it to me on his ageing Steinway piano which he claimed was a gift from an elderly Edinburgh lady who had attended his extramural classes at Edinburgh University. “After one class she asked me what my ideal piano would be. I said a Steinway, of course. She asked me to go to London and pick one,” he recollected. “This is it.”
Truth be told, Stevenson was by that time celebrating his 75th birthday, and the sheer joy of hearing him reminisce on a colourful life and perform from such an iconic work in his living room offset the noticeable rustiness of a previously flamboyant and assured technique. Another memory from that visit was his revelation that the Passacaglia had undergone continuous revision since its original conception. It was, to some extent, the encapsulation of a life’s work.
Its latest resurrection is this Tuesday, 2 November, when British pianist James Willshire presents it as the sole entity of a programme that is part of Music in Peebles’ 75th anniversary concert season. Willshire first came across the Passacaglia as a 13-year-old at Chethams School in Manchester, but never attempted to learn it until 2013. “I realised that Ronald would be 85 and that that December would mark the 50th anniversary of its premiere, so everything seemed to fall into place,” Willshire told me in an interview at the time.
His recording on the East Lothian-based Delphian label was duly released that year, notable for the infinite colours and shades Willshire extracted from a score that is as intellectually gruelling as it is physically challenging. His wasn’t the first recording. Those by Stevenson himself and Dundee-born Murray McLachlan offer their own individual solutions, as does the latest by Igor Levit, part of an invigorating 3-CD set just out on Sony Classical that neatly partners the Passacaglia with Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.
Make no mistake, Stevenson demands as much input from the listener as from any performer brave enough to tackle what was originally inspired by one of his great musical heroes, pianist-composer Ferrucio Busoni. Stevenson openly referred to his direct inspiration, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, as a “related work”. The latter is every bit as complex, as hedonistic perhaps, and even utilises a dedicatory four-note motif of its own, that of JS Bach (B-A-C-H).
The trick in bringing it off, Willshire told me in 2013, is “to understand the logic of the Passacaglia’s three main sections.” The first part represents Stevenson’s sweeping response to the past, with reinterpretations of the Baroque suite, of sonata form, even a nocturne. In the central section Stevenson turns to socio-political references, a turbulent reaction to 20th century historical events from the Second World War and Russian communism to aspects of “emerging Africa”, which he experienced first hand in the 1960s while lecturing at Cape Town University.
The final section, its gradual sense of repose pointing the way to a sublime and consummate epilogue, is, said Willshire, “like the end of a natural lifecycle”.
Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH is performed by James Willshire on Tuesday 2 November at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles. Tickets on 01721 725777. Full information at www.musicinpeebles.org.uk