About this Recording
8.223480 - STEVENS, B.: Piano Concerto / Dance Suite / Variations

Bernard Stevens (1916–1983)
Dance Suite, Op. 28 • Piano Concerto, Op. 26 • Variations for Orchestra, Op. 36


Bernard Stevens was one of the most important British composers of the mid-20th century, though during his lifetime he attracted much less attention than some of his contemporaries. He studied with E.J. Dent at Cambridge University, and later with the renowned R.O. Morris at the Royal College of Music in London, where he gained the highest awards. During his army service in World War II he succeeded in completing two of his most important early works, a Violin Concerto for Max Rostal and his First Symphony. The latter, entitled Symphony of Liberation, brought Stevens to national prominence when it won a competition sponsored by the Daily Express newspaper for a “Victory Symphony” to celebrate the end of the War. The work received a widely-publicised and prestigious first performance in the Royal Albert Hall.

This early success, however, was not sustained: partly because of Stevens’ Marxist affiliations. He was an intellectually and emotionally committed communist, a champion of left-wing causes in association with other socialist artists and writers, and his intellectual and moral integrity sometimes brought him into conflict with the attitudes of the British musical establishment. His music too, which represented a dedicated yet highly individual championship of traditional musical forms and values, came to seem out of joint with the stylistic fashions promoted in the 1960s and 70s. Stevens composed steadily, but his more important works received few performances. Nonetheless he was known and respected as a distinguished teacher at the Royal College and the University of London, a born educator who nourished the talents and artistic standards of many successful and devoted pupils. As an examiner he travelled widely, occasionally performing his own works; in the 1950s and 60s his connection with left-wing musical organizations made him more familiar with Eastern Europe than most of his peers.

Though a meticulous, highly self-critical composer, Stevens’ output came to comprise an impressive body of orchestral works including two symphonies and three concertos, as well as chamber, vocal and choral music (with some substantial works to texts by his friend, the poet Randall Swingler), piano pieces and an opera on J.M. Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen. In the intervening decade since his death in 1983, this body of music has started to come into its own in performances and recordings, as its sterling qualities are recognised.

Despite his solid academic record, Stevens was anything but academic in personality and convictions, but he certainly believed that any inspiration must be expressed through the fullest possible technical command and musical craftsmanship, an attitude manifested above all in his complete mastery of counterpoint for expressive ends. Composers he admired, and whose music has points in common with his own, included Ernst Bloch, Shostakovich, and his friends Alan Bush and Edmund Rubbra, though he once said he felt closest to Busoni. Stevens’ voice, however, is distinctive, capable of a trenchant concision of utterance, a rhythmic dynamism and a sustained, unsentimental lyricism that remain highly individual in their effect. He was principally concerned with constructive power, the purposeful, organic growth of musical ideas. His themes are fashioned for development, full of latent energy to be released as the music proceeds: a characteristic of the three orchestral scores contained in this recording, all important works composed at the height of his powers.

Stevens’ Dance Suite, Opus 28, was written in 1957 and first performed in a radio broadcast in 1961 by the BBC Northern Orchestra under George Hurst. Any listener expecting a relaxed sequence of light music will soon be rudely disabused. In choosing his title Stevens may well have been thinking of the Dance Suite of Béla Bartók, like his own, a challenging and substantial work founded on a complex sublimation of national dance-rhythms. The four movements of Stevens’ suite create the impression of something more like a concise and vigorous “dance symphony”; and like several of his other works its individual rhythmic profile, especially the use of irregular metres, derives partly from the composer’s interest in the relationship between rhythm and bodily movement espoused by the Czech choreographer Rudolf Laban. On the other hand there are, quite apart from the work’s title, a number of parallels with or allusions to the musical techniques of Bartók. These may be coincidences with no extra-musical significance, but they prompt the observation that the Suite was composed in the aftermath of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, an event which had affected Stevens so deeply that he resigned his membership of the Communist Party.

Although the first movement is in a traditional 9/8 jig rhythm, it unfolds as a tense (and terse) symphonic structure characterised by a sense of abundant nervous energy kept under taut control. Part of the tension proceeds from the harmony, for Stevens has cast the music in a symmetrical mode, centred, Bartók-like, about the tritonal axis of D and A-flat, and he uses only the eight pitches of the mode throughout the movement.

The second movement, which maintains the tritonal key-relations of the first, is a passacaglia (which was a dance-measure before it ever became a form for contrapuntal variations) in 5/4 time on a sombre, meditative seven-bar subject. The movement begins as a slow Andante, with development mainly on the strings, but the pace soon increases to a quicker, more polyphonically lively section. The original mood and tempo are eventually restored, and the music evanesces in an elegiac horn solo. (The instrumentation, throughout the work, testifies to Stevens’ impressive command of the orchestra, whether in his habitual economy of effect or his resplendent writing for brass.)

There follows a delicate, bittersweet Allegretto, a kind of intermezzo dominated by the tones of oboe and harp. It almost feels like a waltz, though the metre is in fact a pavane-like 2/2. The regretful dying fall of its ending is then contradicted by the determined energy of the finale. This is a Presto movement in an irregular 11/8 metre which reflects the fact that Stevens, again like Bartók, was interested in Bulgarian dance rhythms. Brass canons on augmentations of the main theme heighten the tension and excitement as the Dance Suite drives to a conclusion of unbridled physical energy.

Two years before writing this Suite, Stevens had completed the Piano Concerto, Opus 26, on which he had been engaged intermittently from about 1950. This superb work illustrates the vicissitudes of his reputation, since it is only now emerging from obscurity. An ambitious but logical continuation to the series of concertos he had begun in his highly successful Violin Concerto (1943) and the Cello Concerto (1952), it dates from the same period as two of his most admired compositions for solo piano, the Sonata (1954) and the Fantasia on Giles Farnaby’s Dream (1953). Yet despite the interest of Barbirolli, Rudolf Schwarz and Karl Rankl, Stevens was unable to secure a performance for the Concerto. Two years before his death, when it remained his most important unplayed work, he made a new and much reduced version: in place of the original three-movement design he gave it a two-movement shape: a substantial amount of the music was omitted entirely; the solo part was made less taxing; the slow central movement of the original became the new first movement, and portions of the original first and third were combined to form a new finale. Despite the undoubted skill with which Stevens fashioned that 1981 version, he sacrificed some of the Concerto’s finest inspirations in what must partly have been an attempt to make the work easier to programme. In fact the original version of 1955, as revealed by this recording, its long-delayed world première, is entirely convincing and impressive in its own right.

The Piano Concerto opens with a brooding orchestral introduction. This haunting, shadowed music is then unexpectedly banished by the entrance of the piano, which initiates and takes the lead in an athletic, resolute and optimistic Allegro. Throughout, the solo part calls for virtuosity and stamina, but is always imbued with thematic significance; nothing is done merely for bravura effect.

The second movement is tripartite, its outer sections performing the function of an Adagio slow movement and enclosing a scherzo-like Allegro, the one a variation of the other. In the initial Adagio the brooding atmosphere of the Concerto’s opening returns, in sombre dialogue between low strings and brass. The main idea is lyrically elaborated by piano and woodwind before the fleeter-footed fast music takes hold, though this is interrupted by baleful reminders of the slow music before the Adagio tempo returns for the end of the movement, which proceeds without a break to the finale. Here the Concerto finally breaks free of the darker moods: throughout, this is another vivacious, optimistic Allegro, closely related to the material of the first movement but presented in a more extended and dance-like manner. The piano sums up the work in an impressive solo cadenza before the full forces combine in a flamboyant coda.

Although Stevens’ music always has a strong tonal orientation, he was interested in many alternative musical resources and made a close study of Schoenbergian twelve-tone technique. In the early 1960s this bore fruit in a series of three works (three of his most substantial) which apply twelve-note principles in very personal fashion: works in which the twelve-note row is constructed so as to spell out, at need, major and minor triads, so that the harmony may remain diatonically based. The works in question were Stevens’ Second String Quarter, Opus 34, his Second Symphony, Opus 35, and most radical of all the Variations for Orchestra, Opus 36, recorded here, one of his least-known major scores, in which the row is fashioned not so much to obtain complete triads as to secure major-minor thirds, perfect fourths, segments of scale, and semitones for dissonance and leading motion.

Composed in 1964, the Variations had to wait until 1972 for its first performance, by the BBC Northern Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. In some senses this is one of Stevens’ most abstract and sculptural scores, concerned with issues that arise from the stuff of music itself: yet it is a work of immense power and conviction. The subject-matter is not so much a theme as a twelve-note matrix of interval-relations, from which significant motifs for development may be derived. This “matrix” is the substance of the gaunt, austere Adagio introduction, dominated by hieratic brass and timpani. There follows a continuous sequence of 34 variations over a passacaglia-like ground bass, first announced in the low strings in Variation 1 with the twelve-note row as a melody in the violins (it appears in retrograde on the oboe in Variation 2). The use of passacaglia, strictest of all the variation forms, in combination with the motivic strictness of twelve-note writing, underlines the architectural quality of the music, but the orchestral passacaglia has come (in, for instance, the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and in Webern’s Opus 1) into close alliance with symphonic form. Stevens’ work generates an immense cumulative power, the individual variations grouping themselves into a four-movements-in-one pattern that creates a true “variation-symphony”.

The first seven variations constitute a powerfully elegiac opening Andante, rising to a climax with sonorous brass counterpoint and subsiding, via wintry string writing against a timpani pedal, into a more lyrical oboe solo. Despite the serial working in the music the sense of tonality is strongly defined, a dark-hued E-flat minor, rendered the more uneasy by persistent clashes with the pedal D first heard at the very outset of the work. The Eighth Variation, however, brings a lightening of mood. It initiates a substantial Allegro section of twelve fast variations with a dancing, scherzo-like character. The music flows so vivaciously the listener is unlikely to be aware of the composer’s virtuosic revelling in the devices of strict counterpoint: the subject-matter is treated in rhythmic diminution with inversions, retrogrades, and a wealth of close canonic imitation, as well as swifty-exchanged dialogues between various sections of the orchestra. A vein of fantasy enters with Variation 20, a strange, rather Holstian invention characterised by capricious harp glissandi and mystic muted strings; and a more reflective character predominates until the Adagio tempo of the introduction returns and the music enters an intense “slow movement” of four variations, beginning with Variation 26, a rather sinister funeral march dominated by low brass and tolling timpani. Variation 27 locates the expressive heart of the work in a rapt violin solo (abetted at one point by solo cello), after which Variation 28 restates the twelve-note row in lower strings against the obstinate D of the horns. An accelerando leads to the last five variations, nos. 30–34, which act as a short Allegro finale. The brass, especially the trumpets, are to the fore in the climactic final variation, which reins back the tempo to allow the concluding cadence, onto a chord of E-flat major, all necessary grandeur. This chord has been called “inexplicable in the note-row context” in which Stevens was working, but it is entirely explicable in terms of the Variations’ tonal argument, signifying as it does the victory of a heroic E-flat over the disruptive D. (In any case he may well have remembered that Schoenberg himself once composed a serial work with an E-flat major ending, the Ode to Napoleon). It makes a suitably triumphant conclusion to an intellectually gripping symphonic argument whose wealth of invention seems richer at every hearing.

© 1994 Malcolm MacDonald

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