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A Brilliant Idea

A Bernard Stevens celebration
at London's Wigmore Hall,
reviewed by BILL NEWMAN


You grow up to appreciate, love and understand what belongs to and forms part of your generation. I may -- in common with others -- have said this on many occasions, but it is time that certain self-designated important organisations and brash, young individuals stopped bleating about the pre-eminence of present day compositions, conveniently making dividing lines to separate the old fashioned composer brigade up to the 1950s-60s -- even the start of the 70s, from those who now identify themselves with everything happening around them. 'You cannot stand still, but must move on' is also equally true and important in the Arts generally, but my concern here is a correct evaluation towards the composers you can identify with once you begin to listen to their music. As Lewis Foreman said once to me: 'Those who became steeped in poverty as a result of purposeful neglect, never recovered.'

What a brilliant idea to select Bernard Stevens (1916-83), musical academic par excellence, as worthy of international recognition and acceptance. As a result of his teachings and composition he stands late on in life at the turning point between the past and the present.

Complementing Malcolm MacDonald's four pages of notes, Roderick Swanston's illustrative talk convinced me of the importance and validity of the compositions with their 'built in' counterpoint linked to the melodic content to form, also the basis of harmonic patterns, build-up, development and changes of state. Musical score examples clearly indicated this about to happen -- almost in advance -- particularly with chosen works. You could also compare with favourite past composers, ie Bach, Beethoven, Bartók, Bloch in chosen examples like fugue writing.

What convinced mainly was the 'stability' and 'security' of the compositions, which left options open for the 'surprise' factor to provide each with its individually defined character. Every 'cog in the wheel' was carefully chosen to form part of the whole and assembled with skill and no wastage en route into a tight fitting edifice. Yet there is none of that feeling of being stifled or overpowered as a listener, but a complete freedom and freshness as the music progresses -- the harmonies essentially warm and lyrical, the rhythmic content pliable and buoyant.

The range of compositions is interesting and suggests Stevens' different mentors in Arthur Hutchings, E J Dent, Cyril Rootham, R O Morris: chamber music, keyboard works, full orchestra (two symphonies, Dance Suite, Fugal Overture, Variations), film music, small orchestra, string orchestra, concertos, solo songs, wind, various instruments. You will find various influences, like Giles Farnaby and others from the Elizabethan-Jacobean ages. The Fantasia -- as in the hands of William Byrd -- provided the programme's starting point connection.

A few words are also necessary concerning the excellent artist lineup ...

Florian Uhlig was born in Düsseldorf, and is at present studying with Peter Feuchtwanger; also with Bernard Roberts and Hamish Milne at the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music. On CD, he especially favours the music of Robert Schumann. Works 1, 2 and 4-7 in the list below find him performing the lion's share.

Michael Finnissy was Stevens' pupil at the Royal College. He created the Music Department of the London School of Contemporary Dance and has been composer for various dance companies. As a pianist and commissioner of new music he has approached a long line of British composers. His achievements include The History of Photography in Sound -- a five hour plus marathon, plus Selected Movements of Great Masters and Greatest Hits of All Time among his achievements. Finnissy featured in works 4 and 5.

The Carducci String Quartet has won prizes, competitions and studied with Europe's elite. Amongst prestigious performances are those for the Park Lane Group and the Cheltenham Contemporary Music Society. The quartet took part in works 2 and 3.

Speaking of Cheltenham, one must acknowledge the great Sir John Barbirolli who with his 'beloved Hallé' placed the music of Bernard Stevens and other British composers firmly on the map at that town's Festival. The Festival of Britain, 1951 did the rest!

The musical performances throughout the evening were of the highest class. Two encores corresponded to a movement from Lyric Suite for String Trio Op 30 (1958) and a re-scoring for two pianos and string quartet of the Suite for Six Instruments, Op 40 (1967), originally for flute, oboe, violin, viola da gamba or viola, cello and harpsichord or piano.

Copyright © 6 November 2008 Bill Newman, Edgware UK


This recital to celebrate the music of Bernard Stevens at London's Wigmore Hall on Thursday 6 December 2007 featured the following works:

1) Fantasia on 'Giles Farnaby' Dreame, Op 22
2) Piano Trio Op 3
3) Theme and Variations for String Quartet, Op 11
4) Fantasia on 'The Irish Ho-Hoane' Op 13
5) 2 Dances Op 33
6) Theme and Variations Op 2
7) Sonata in 1 Movement, Op 25

The performers were:

Florian Uhlig, piano, Michael Finnissy, piano and the Carducci String Quartet: Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming, Eoin Schmidt-Martin and Emma Denton.

There was an illustrated pre-concert talk by Roderick Swanston, and the programme notes were by Malcolm Macdonald.

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