Robin Stevens: Music for Cello and Piano

This modern album is not so instantly accessible but despite its modern and sometimes austere sound it’s a long way from being difficult.

The PR says that Stevens writes “stimulating and expressive” work influenced by everything from the music of the Romantic era to mathematics and the eclectic nature of the composer means that something interesting is never far away. The sleeve notes are also excellent, Stevens explaining each piece in some detail, both technical and not so: “The soaring, aspirational cello melody of the opening leads into faster music of a restless, scurrying character … the unborn baby is represented by a mocking theme familiar to all children – ‘naanaa – na-naa-naa’”.

An accomplished cellist, Stevens suffered for many years with post-viral fatigue, which he also writes about.

Although there are shorter works for cello and piano and some moments of wit, the album opens with the 27–minute Sonata Romantica, a more serious work. Stevens explains that all the musical material of the sonata appears within the first five minutes, later developed and varied, “seeing the same landmarks from different viewing points”.

This longer piece is followed by Three Epigrams, all clocking in around one minute, Clockwork Toy the longest and most entertaining.

Carried on a Whimsy “employs microtones to more serious expressive intent” says the composer but is generally pleasantly melancholy, and sounds more traditional, with some impressive playing.

The frantic and slightly obsessive A Short Ride in a Dangerous Machine deserves a mention for Steven’s comment: “The sense of risk – actual, rather than imaginary for any musicians reckless enough to attempt a performance of this extremely demanding piece – is heightened by the unpredictable and ever-changing bar-metres.”

In many ways the album is defined by the closing piece A Birthday Trifle, written by Stevens for his own 60th birthday party, as you think that anyone who can write something this joyful deserves a listen, helping the listener get over the more challenging modern sections.

The best (ie easiest) section is the light and easy Balmoral Suite, a commission from John Turner, who premiered the original recorder and piano version in Manchester in 2017, and is an affectionate tribute to a well-known family who spend their summer holidays in the Highlands. This five-movement piece combines Scottish folk music with occasional modern twists thrown in. Movements include Grandpa Hankers for the Past (a nod to the conservative taste of Prince Charles), and Enter Great-Grandpa, a tribute to the late Prince Philip.

Well worth a listen if you like some modernity; it was recorded at St Peter’s in Manchester and had to observe social distancing.

It’s out on Divine Art, DDA 25217.

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