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Dunelm Records

Piano music of Erik Chisholm and his friends
BARTÓK Out of Doors Suite (With drums and pipes)
SORABJI Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’Egregio poeta Hugh MacDiarmid Ossia Christopher Grieve MCMLXI
CHISHOLM Sonata in A (1939) "An Riobain Dearg": (Molto Moderato; Scherzo: Allegretto con Moto; Lament: HMS "Thetis" foundered June 3rd 1939; Allegro Moderato)
STEVENSON A Threepenny Sonatina
BUSONI Fantasia Contrappuntistica (Edizione Definitiva)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
Recorded 16-17, 19 December 2003, Whiteley Hall, Chethams, Manchester. DDD
DUNELM DRD0219 [78:11]

Despite the presence on this CD of the iconic Busoni, the principal interest must surely centre on the long lost Piano Sonata of Erik Chisholm (1904-1965), now pieced together and resurrected with the help of the composer’s daughter Morag. Like the composer himself today the work is something of an enigma – played here more or less in its entirety with terrific enthusiasm and panache: Murray McLachlan has given several ‘premieres’ in this Chisholm’s centenary year - its very first performances since Wight Henderson’s sole outing in November 1939 at a Dunedin Association concert in Glasgow – what days those were! (surely a book must be written of this music-making in 1930s Scotland – see British Music Society Journal No 21 – 1999 pp. 67-71). McLachlan has now played the work on several occasions and has from time to time essayed cuts in the score. The jury is however out on this subject and it may be some time yet before a definitive edition is prepared. This CD therefore is not necessarily the definitive performance of this striking and highly individual work - but it would be hard to better McLachlan’s account of a work that, the more you listen the more hidden depths there are.

The Sonata is in four movements, a big canvas that, in company with Thorpe Davie’s Violin Sonata, and Francis George Scott’s songs, must for its time have fallen strangely on the ears of the douce Glaswegians. The composer has given the Sonata an equally enigmatic sub-title "An Riobain Dearg" – "The Red Ribbon" – which the accompanying notes suggest is the title of a traditional bagpipe tune to which Chisholm’s music might be related.

The first movement opens with a melancholy solo pipe tune, characterised by the double tonic and elaborate pattern of grace notes from which the movement develops, not in first movement Sonata form, but in a series of variants (a better description than variations - ‘divisions’ was the term in use in the 17th Century). Though not indicated in the score other than by obvious changes in texture and structure there would appear to be a dozen or more ‘variants’, seemingly following (albeit with considerable freedom) the procedures of classical piobearachd – the theme or ‘urlar’ at the outset like a ‘ground’. From the opening static bars the texture becomes more complex until after a pause there is a brisk 12/8 section in the style of piobearachd. This could perhaps even be the true ‘urlar’ with the preceding bars as a kind of introduction. Whatever the composer’s intention, the melodic implications of this appear in the inner parts, in fourths, and then as a high octave cry with its falling interval – that fall that gives the lament character of the piobearachd. The decorative grace notes, which have more import than mere ornamentation, proliferate, the whole tone colour and swirling arpeggios recalling the music of John Ireland – all evoking a truly Hebridean spaciousness (where pipe music is best appreciated). The music becomes more sombre in mood as it approaches a 14 bar Coda of shimmering trills, ending on the dominant, the octave figure now full of Celtic magic.

The second movement in D (though ranging widely) begins with a demonic scherzo figure in the left hand, with trills punctuated by impish runs , the whole developing into a dramatic Bartókian war dance. This broadens to a strong chordal 3-3-2 rumba rhythm (though lacking the connotations of that dance) which later becomes a complex 2 against 3 – and continues insistently after some breathless moments to an abrupt brilliante finish.

The third movement in entitled ‘Lament’ and bears an in memoriam note ‘Thetis’ June 3rd 1939 commemorating the sinking of the tragic submarine. The movement opens Adagio with a series of four linked tritones setting an appropriately dark mood which is followed again by a watery pattern of decorative appoggiaturas, like the cry of gulls. The thematic impulse is given out in fourths leading to a triple octave figure (possibly derived from the first movement) which appears later deep in the bass – its character very close to the knocking of Fate. Again the texture becomes impressionistic, with swirling arpeggios, the ‘Fate’ motif, now encrusted with chromatic accretions giving out its angry declamatory cry. The conclusion, though strangely marked ‘grandioso’, is dark and sombre as the music sinks lower and lower, the tritone colour reappearing. There is a distant hint of a chorale like figure which, although it has the spiritual import of a Bach chorale (cf. Berg’s Violin Concerto) sounds ominously like a few bars of ‘Rule Britannia’?

The fourth movement immediately banishes the solemn mood with a bright exuberant dance melody , again in fourths, developed with Bartókian urgency and clamour. This becomes a march-like tune, suggestive of the gathering of the clans (and the March of the Cameron Men?) Repeated through various keys, this ultimately resolves into the eloquent climax of the Sonata. This, over some 33 bars, represents the emotional heart of the work – and from this sunlit peak, although the basic dotted rhythm continues, the music quietens . Hesitantly at first the opening dance motif of the movement returns and gradually re-establishes itself towards a martellato conclusion.

This is a striking work as it stands – and repeated hearings will yield moments (and associations) of real beauty.

One can hardly consider the Fantasia Contrappuntistica as a ‘filler’! A majestic work, resulting from the composer’s desire to complete J.S. Bach’s last and incomplete Fugue, it is given in MacLachlan’s hands a magisterial performance. Busoni himself thought of the work as "a study, neither for pianoforte nor organ nor orchestra. It is music. The sound mechanism which imparts the music to the listener is of secondary importance" It is however the sheer logic of the music, singing of a world far removed from that of Chisholm, that commands at the least admiration and at best a complete immersion of self in the inevitability of Busoni’s musical thought processes.

The disc opens - the piano tone clear and resonant – with the ‘drums and pipes’ section of Bartók’s ‘Out of Doors’ Suite – an evocation as earthy as Le Sacre. And in the same obsessive vein Sorabji’s nebulous Fantasiettina begins darkly – but the prismatic centre section is in complete contrast, like coloured lights through the facets of a crystal chandelier and full also of aromatic allusions – dismissively ending in a disgruntled even MacDiarmidian Coda!

The other work in the programme – Stevenson’s Threepenny Sonatina – is the most immediately appealing and most melodic work on the disc – a ‘contrapuntal cocktail’ of songs from ‘The Threepenny Opera’ of Kurt Weill. The piece is full of that quasi-decadent atmosphere, and here in lightly pencilled sketches, brought to life as picturesquely as the Paris of Toulouse Lautrec.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

see also

ERIK CHISHOLM Piano MusicThird Soanatina on Four Ricercars [8'04] Cameos [13'51] Scottish Airs [11'25] Sonatine Ecossaise [12'07] Night Song of the Bards [29'38] Murray McLachlan Piano. Olympia OCD 639

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