Ronald Stevenson - Passacaglia on D.S.C.H.
Murray McLachlan - piano
This is a very important release for lovers of 20th century music, featuring one of the most fascinating and important piano works of the 20th century. Passacaglia is, first, one of the longest continuous solo keyboard pieces ever written. It has collected almost a cult following. It is also a piece of wide variety, collecting in influences from the music of many places, but based strongly and closely throughout on the initials DSCH (for Dmitri Schostakovich).
Stevenson wrote the Passacaglia on DSCH between 1960 and 1962, presenting the whole 191 page score to Shostakovich at the Edinburgh Festival in August of the latter year. Stevenson states in an open letter to Shostakovich that it took a year and a quarter to compose, and an hour and a quarter to perform. He asserts that since 1914 \'melody\'s rainbow has been in fragments. I want you to know that some young western composers look to you with gratitude and hope because you have preserved the lineage of the great masters.\' Tasking himself with such lineage, Stevenson sets about him with a Marxian will, incorporating world music and melody as he was later to do in his Piano Concerto No. 2 of 1972, \'The Four Continents\'.
The Passacaglia is in three main sections. The opening \'sonata\' pounds the DSCH theme in the bass, clipping the last note in a commanding gesture of purposeful optimism. There\'s an assertive development, always keeping the DSCH theme, untransposed, in the bass. Shards of Shostakovich\'s 10th Symphony drift through the pianist\'s fingers, but unexpectedly there\'s a marvellous moment of calm reflective lyricism, dotted, before the return of the sonata allegro. After this an attractive Waltz in rondo-form dances the motto away in a skittish but always moral turn around the ballroom floor. It\'s melodic and delightful. After this the \'Episode\' returns us to the main dynamics of the opening. Then follows a neo-baroque Suite … with a difference. This is inflected with the nationalisms of the original dances. Thus the prelude is Germanic, and not quite unmeasured as these forms used to be. A Sarabande inflects French colour, an English (and Gigue-Englished) Jig, Sarabande, waltz-like Minuet, another British folk-inflected Jig, a gallumphing delicate gavotte and a truly Chopin-quoting Polonaise.
You would identify the Pilbroch \'Lament for the children\' even if you hadn\'t read the programme. A retiary delicacy informs this quiet keening, and is hauntingly beautiful. The next variation - \'arabesque variations\' - affirms the \'arabesque\' as rooted in such Middle Eastern music, however westernised, and stylised to stereotype, long before it became fashionable. This applies to other such music later on. The \'Reverie-fantasy\' again marks a dream-like sequence of chords rising to unexpected intensity, glissandi first, a kind of wildness. It\'s swiftly succeeded by an extraordinary episode that requires the performer to reach over and pluck glissandi of the appropriate strings inside the piano. Finally the DSCH brings it to gently stern order.
The Fanfare speeds up the motto - which re-asserts the progress of DSCH. Then comes the war sequences, with \'Forebodings Alarum;\' and \'Glimpse of a War Vision\'. These have an astonishing volume and array of percussive effects, knocking the piano lid, and as one commentator noted, doing a percussionist out of a job. The crescendo of DSCH against this auric nightmare is as explosive as anything in Shostakovich\'s 7th or 8th symphonies. The effect is hallucinatory, thrilling and even numbing. The repeated theme and speeded up DSCH over the main untransposed DSCH is overwhelmingly powerful, and might have provided the conclusion to a lesser architect. The composer noted that after playing it for 25 years he realised that this point in the work, about 35 minutes in, corresponded to a climax in the 80 minute work in the same way as 35 years did in one\'s life of about 80 years. This is a physical climax, as opposed to a spiritual one, which comes much later at the end.
After this the Soviet Variations \'Peace, Bread & the Land, (1917)\' furnish an effective, still quite strident, coda. A Symphonic March moves out of the ruins still carrying the arched spine of DSCH down the centre of the work like a porcupine. A second Episode \'volonte scherzoso\' winds this to launch into another coloured area, the \'Fandango\'. \'A Pedal-Point: To Emergent Africa\' repeats the teasing of piano strings, and doesn\'t try to flicker an obvious kind of melodiousness. He never patronises with a white-tourist approach, but absorbs national idioms respectfully into his texture. Stevenson was being sensitive and tactful when few knew how to be. He was not tactful to the first, perhaps all-white, audience in Capetown, where he played this in 1963, as senior lecturer at the University of Capetown from 1963-65. One imagines Apartheid was simply so endemic that he was forced to leave. But with the plucked strings, one senses his solution, purposefully alternating with the (Soviet!) hammers.
The \'Central episode: études\' might look on paper as an elegant European filigree. No - they\'re quite explosive and constitute another thrilling point of the work, a second climax where the passacaglia is set off against climatic variations of itself. Only a second set of \'Variations in C minor\' provide the necessary release that leads into the finally delicate \'Adagio: tribute to BACH\'. The Shostakovich/Bach references dovetail into a texture reminiscent of some of Shostakovich\'s own 24 Preludes and Fugues Op 87 (1951-52), which Stevenson would have known before many others. It\'s a quotation from the 24th of these that appears toward the end, itself first quoting the DSCH theme as a response to the BACH after the 1950 Bach Bicentenary.
Finally the \'Triple Fugue over ground - bass\' opens with Subject I: \'andantamento\' from the Bach tribute. This is done so quietly that we\'re in it before we know. Possibly it\'s a tribute to Bach that such joins are seamless, as it is to him that both Stevenson and Shostakovich are prepared to do homage. It builds cumulatively and then launches into Subject II: BACH which fierily vaunts the BACH theme above the DSCH ground - a fugal marriage of true minds officiated over by Stevenson. It\'s not at all academic, but an extraordinary play of dramatic textures that end in the DSCH thundering into the final Subject III, the \'Dies Irae\' to the Six Million (recalling Benjamin Frankel\'s inscription to his 1951 Violin Concerto), as well as Shostakovich\'s own Jewish memorials. The inevitable explosion of two such powerful themes creates a grimly joyous celebration of the human spirit over adversity and terror, as well as, what Elgar would have termed, \'a massive hope for the future\' after far darker knowledge.
But it isn\'t over. There are nearly 10 minutes of a postlude set of \'Final variations on a theme derived from the ground: adagissimo barocco\'. This contains the most wonderful melodic twist, quietly stated, to the entire work. In fact, this wondrous passage was directly inspired by events of April 12th, 1961. \'as though with Gagarin\'s perception of space\', and it does convey that wondrous, disembodied effect. More, it is as near to a mystical coda as an avowed and deeply humane Marxist could allow himself. And this is a deeply humane work. The rising figure comes, too, out of the final cumulative Fugue from Shostakovich\'s 24th Prelude and Fugue. There is a climax - and the work refuses such triumphalism. It ends quietly restating the DSCH pianissimo, eschewing all easy victories.
Walton said of this piece: \'It is really tremendous - magnificent. I cannot remember being so excited by a new work for a very long time. It is in the line of such great works as Busoni\'s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, and he, I am certain, would have been among the first to acclaim it. I enjoy its uninhibited exuberance and originality ... Though it is long in actual duration, it does not seem a bar too long in performance.\' One can only concur, and it\'s good to know how Walton admired Busoni and this kind of writing. Arthur Bliss called this \'deeply moving and impressive\' and Christopher Morley \'the modern equivalent of Bach\'s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven\'s Diabelli Variations.\' Malcolm MacDonald proclaimed it \'a milestone not only in Stevenson\'s creative development, but in the history of the piano.\'