Pianist Kenneth Hamilton is undertaking a series of recording ventures, committing the music of Ronald Stevenson to disc. Many of the pieces are being recorded for the very first time – a fitting tribute following the composer’s death in 2015. The first CD of the series has just been released by Prima Facie.
This is my first encounter with the music of Ronald Stevenson. From what I’ve read, and certainly what I’ve heard on this disc, Stevenson’s music makes frequent reference to a panoply of musical styles and often quotes the works of other composers extensively. The line between arrangement and composition in Stevenson’s music is blurred. Even in the extended ‘fantasy’ treatments of other composer’s themes, he manages to be original without rendering the quoted material unrecognisable. Stevenson’s technical mastery, both as a composer and pianist, are unmistakable. His music is distinctive, but not challenging; indebted to earlier styles, but in its own way fresh.
The influence of Busoni on Stevenson’s thinking puts me in mind of another (more famous) British composer-pianist: Michael Finnissy. The two compositional worlds are very different, but both explore and illuminate the works they quote in thoroughly compelling ways. I’m reminded of Peter Szendy’s thesis that arrangements and transcriptions are actually notated ‘hearings’ and that listening is itself a form of arrangement. (Listen: A history of our ears is a wonderfully charming read, which I wholly recommend). Listening to Stevenson (or Finnissy) explore quoted music is like hearing that music through somebody else’s ears and, more to the point, being invited into the emotional drama they experience while engaging with it. Technical mastery isn’t just a nicety here, it’s an absolute necessity. Stevenson has it in spades.
Speaking of technique, Kenneth Hamilton’s work at the keyboard can’t be overlooked. A pupil of the composer whose music he presents, Hamilton has both the insight and the facility to bring every corner of his teacher’s music to life. The recording is a pure joy to hear. It’s difficult to isolate a moment on the CD that illustrates the stylistic caprice of Stevenson or the fine musicianship of Hamilton. As a complete programme, the recording is gloriously rhapsodic, wandering through fields sown with very different crops. Perhaps Hamilton’s ability to compel us on that journey, with all its wild meanders and emotive interjections, is testament to his wit and technical commitment as a performer.
This is a CD you can put on at any time and know, whether you’re listening closely or letting it play in the background, you’ll end up cracking a smile.