Tag Archives: Ronald Stevenson

Book review: House Concert

Igor Levitt and Florian Zinnecker

(Polity, £20)

Pianist Igor Levit has not played in Scotland for a while, having pulled out of his scheduled pre-pandemic appearances with the RSNO and SCO due to illness, although he has performed at London’s Wigmore Hall at least three times this year. One of those concerts included Scots composer Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, an 80 minute assault course for piano that he has championed and recorded.

It fits with Levit’s practice in a way that it suits few other pianists. Virtuosic, certainly – in this book, Levit talks of music that is “too big for the piano” and Stevenson’s Passacaglia, with its explicit instructions to sound like other instruments or as if coming from outer space, fits that description – but also the work of a composer of robust views well to the left of today’s political mainstream.

Levit’s detractors – and he has plenty – would contend that he thinks himself “too big for the piano”. Since he came to international attention with his Sony label debut recording of Beethoven’s Late Sonatas a decade ago, Levit has become as well known for his outspoken political views and, until recently, bold presence on social media.

House Concert (published in German, as Hauskonzert, last year and newly translated by Shaun Whiteside) is as much concerned with that side of his public identity as with his musical life, and the title of the book is a little misleading.

During the first, international, Covid-19-necessitated lockdown, Levit was an early exponent of the possibilities of online performance, broadcasting in lo-fi, using basic technology, from his home – solo performances advertised on social media and free to all. Although he was by no means unknown to music-lovers before the pandemic, he undoubtedly found new fans during it.

That story is told in the book, but it is a relatively small part of what is both a memoir of his career so far, and a more specific justification of the responsibility he feels to speak out against racism, antisemitism, and the rise of right-wing movements, particularly – but far from exclusively – in his German homeland.

That’s a lot for a 250-page book, but it is a pacey read, once you get past its structural peculiarities. When artists speak of themselves in the third person, they invite ridicule, often with justification. Although his is the name with top billing, House Concert talks of “Igor Levit” from the start to the finish. As one of the pianist’s hot takes is the necessity of speaking personally, and saying “I” honestly, rather than using the impersonal “one”, this becomes even odder as the book goes on. There are long passages of direct quotation from the man himself, and doubtless he had final say on every word, but the authorial voice is actually that of the Die Zeit journalist identified in smaller print, Florian Zinnecker.

Their collaboration predates the disruption of coronavirus, so Zinnecker is clearly an adaptable chap, as well as a loyal one happy to be identified as in Levit’s camp, but House Concert is probably not the book the pair set out to write. That, to some extent (although not entirely), excuses its chronological waywardness, some repetition, and the imperfect editing, and may in fact mean a volume that will assume a greater importance as a document of these difficult recent times as the years go by.

If that is so, we must hope that is because Levit turns out to be on the winning side. Few musicians are as bold as he has been in using the concert platform to speak about issues beyond music. In House Concert he is clear about why he felt compelled to do so, careful to reiterate precisely what he has said – and how he has been misreported – and honest in his admission of missteps. Most compellingly, he and Zinnecker relate his political development to his performing career. For the pianist, and his amanuensis, there is no separating the impulse to play all of the Beethoven Sonatas, that Stevenson piece, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, or Erik Satie’s bizarre epic Vexations, from the compulsion to call-out bigotry and xenophobia.

If that is the headline takeaway from House Concert, the earlier part of it has plenty about the music as well. Although they are very different books, there are parallels with Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine in the individually unique perspective each memoir brings to the story of the development of a precocious young piano talent. Fine reads though they both are, there is a common ingredient of self-indulgence as well.

It is a lack of editorial rigour that rankles as far as Levit’s book is concerned. I read an uncorrected proof of it, but the finished copy I subsequently received had some glaring holes in the proof-reading. When that is a missing digit in an opus number it hardly matters, but the penultimate sentence of the text (excluding a brief updating Afterword added for the English edition) has retained the nonsensical use of the word “coincidence” where “confidence” is quite clearly the word intended.

That is unfortunate, because the pianist may well mean House Concert to be some sort of last word on a distinct phase of his life and career. I doubt Igor Levit’s views have changed in any way, but he does seem to have been more singularly focused on the piano keyboard than the one on his phone of late.

Keith Bruce

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