Remembering Denis Stevens

Gregory Barbero
Monday, March 20, 2023

The early music pioneer and prolific record-maker's centenary fell last year – but why aren't more of his albums available?

Denis Stevens was particularly proud of his reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
Denis Stevens was particularly proud of his reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera

Late last year we reported on the return of the Orpheus label, thanks to Musical Concepts. Once part of the Musical Heritage Society, it either made or purchased 2000 recordings, many of which will now be remastered and re-released.

Among its initial re-releases are some fascinating recordings by early-music pioneer Denis Stevens. Greg Barbero, head of Orpheus, explores the background of these recordings, and explains why Denis Stevens's contribution to early music on record is something to celebrate. 

I came to know of Denis Stevens (1922–2004) because he took up a remarkable amount of room. 

I was going through the offices of Vanguard Classics a few months after the death of the co-founder Seymour Solomon, and I was inspecting everything the new owners had purchased and deciding what to keep. 

I quickly learned that Seymour Solomon was not a man to dispose of much – I found quite a bit of personal correspondence regarding the early days of Vanguard, including a letter from early 1950 to his brother and partner that included a report on the number of eggs the family hen had laid (said modestly with tongue in cheek because the latest LPs were NOT selling well at all, and the family farm was the back-up plan should Vanguard sink into the swamp). Most artists and recording projects took up about the same amount of room in the walls of filing cabinets, but interspersed were enormous folders marked 'Ambrosian Singers', and almost an entire drawer labelled 'Stevens, Denis'. 

In the early classical music days of Vanguard and The Bach Guild, the Solomon brothers eagerly sought out the academics and the artists who were passing through what would become the historically informed instrument practice, and significant correspondence took place between pioneers like HC Robbins Landon, Gustav Leonhardt (who signed his letters 'Utti' and actually vacationed with the Solomon family), Alfred Deller, Anton Heiller and more. And there were also letters from John Hammond, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Clive Davis (referred to as Clyde), Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as well – other practitioners of a different historically informed practice. 

Most of the artists' letters are agreeing or disagreeing with artistic directions (or asking for money), most of the business people are looking for acquisitions or trying to make a few extra points on LP pressings (or asking for money). 

Denis's letters were omnidirectional and also omnivorous – he was quite interested in how the Solomons created (or nearly created) a 'recording assembly line' in Vienna, where recordings could be made every day for in house or for hire. 

He was deeply involved in arranging and describing new works that he'd discovered as a well-connected researcher (royal name-dropping a specialty), and offering advice on how The Deller Consort, or ultimately, his own group might be well suited to record such works. He relentlessly badgered the Solomon brothers to utilize The Ambrosian Singers as their in-house backup choral group when they recorded in London.

Try as Stevens might, the Solomon Brothers at Vanguard were not a sentimental lot – they made recordings of early music with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien because the recordings were offered with no financial risk to the company. Vanguard recorded Alfred Deller and The Deller Consort because the band toured the world and actually sold enough recordings to recoup the costs of releasing them. They were not soft touches for Denis's entreaties that the Purcell anthem he just discovered or a work of Monteverdi he'd found in Italy needed to be heard. They suspected this would be a one-way street, where they would fill the world with Denis's recordings and not receive much benefit in their commercial window of interest. 

Then, a mouse roared. Or, more accurately, a mouse farted. In church. 

The remarkable rupture of the Vanguard relationship came over an article that Denis wrote entitled 'On Performing Monteverdi's Vespers', where he openly mocked the conventions of the true believers of the new authentic instrument movement, and opined that the use of original instruments in St Mark's would be the equivalent of a mouse breaking wind and the performances would be an utter failure. 

But the Solomons – perhaps finally a bit tired of Denis' constant and relatively unfruitful presence in their lives – fell firmly and directly on the side of those who represented the 'auncient ynstrument clubbe' he opened mocked, and cut off all future ties. This also left several Vanguard recordings, including a recording of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, in limbo. These were shelved and then unceremoniously dumped on the market on Vanguard's mid priced 'Cardinal' label in the mid 1960s, and were never issued again, or reissued again. To this day, the Monteverdi Vespers recording has never been issued on compact disc in the United States. In fact, none of Denis Stevens' Vanguard recordings were ever issued on CD in the US and most of the world – although I did assist in getting them issued digitally on the reborn 'Bach Guild' label in the 2010s. 

But the indefatigable Mr Stevens continued, and with the support of Yehudi Menuhin, embarked on a remarkably prolific era, where he made an astonishing number of recordings and set them off into the world like so many dandelion seeds in a strong wind. His sheer creative output is to be greatly admired – in looking at the unreleased list of his recordings, his career in the studio alone makes one wonder if he possibly made a recording every day before lunch, then did something else and went right back to work the next day.

But as a man on a mission, and running headlong in so many directions, Denis didn't seem to stop and admire his work – which may have led others to do the exact same thing. No one record label ever saw it as their duty to compile and market his catalogue of recordings. As a conductor, who for a time must have equalled the output of high achievers like Neville Marriner (himself featured on early Ambrosian Players recordings), Stevens had so many homes for his recordings – he seemed adamant that everything he did be released – that he was never a central figure, deserving a respectful treatment. Instead, he was a bit like an old room of furniture – a bit old, comfortable, and useful. But before you could focus, there were another 4 projects coming through the pipeline. There were no questions or comments as long as the newest recording was issued – a useful event to polish up professional credits and generate a tiny bit of income for the label and himself. Perhaps his highly respectable professional accomplishments led to a certain reticence. After all, should a professor at Columbia, or the editor of the Grove Encyclopedia really be seen to be pushing a commercial entity such as a long-playing LP? 

And without a major, or even a large independent label home, the recordings tended to disappear soon after they arrived. To look at the labels involved with these recordings is to take a walk down a very distant memory lane (Angelicum, Penn State, Nonesuch, Oryx, His Master's Voice, Everest, Concert Hall, Musical Heritage/Orpheus) – a lane through a graveyard littered with many, many LP jackets instead of tombstones.

When I worked at Vanguard and went through the master tapes and the original letters, I understood that these artists, through their energy and passion, were the Mercury astronauts of the early music movement. As Orpheus works to revive the thousands of long-dormant catalogue recordings from the US record club and label Musical Heritage Society, the example of the economics of classical music plays a role in explaining Denis's absence from the discussion. At a time when these MHS recordings might have been ripe for transfer from LP to CD, Musical Heritage realised it would be less expensive to simply license name artists and recordings from the major labels, rather than remaster from scratch the thousands of recordings from the nearly 20 years of releases from MHS on LP. Only in 2021 did the process begin that these long-forgotten recordings were physically located and a long – although much less expensive – journey could begin and these recordings can be heard again.

Even at a point in this blog, where we should point a listener in a direction, it's difficult to find a place to start. There's an obvious route – Stevens seemed exceptionally proud of his reworking and world premiere recording of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (to be released by Orpheus in May of 2023). To be honest, others have come along and completed the task with more dash and finesse.  Also, his lack of an embrace of the historically informed performance practice (hmmm...what would the editor of the Grove say about that phrase) buried any interest in possibly reviving his output of works by Purcell, Monteverdi and others. His big-band approach to instrumental music is best appreciated when taken with vocal accompaniment. The Cries of London and Music for Queen Elizabeth I features an exceptional cast of singers and musicians in very pleasant and energetically performed works. And we must make note of Il Combattimento, as Denis was responsible for the discovery of this work - and this newly issued Orpheus recording may be a world premiere recording (again, the haze of memory makes a definitive statement difficult).

Gramophone Print

  • Print Edition

From £6.67 / month


Gramophone Digital Club

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive
  • Reviews Database
  • Full website access

From £8.75 / month



If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.