Scottish composer Erik Chisholm has been neglected for decades
but thanks to the efforts of a trust set up in the composer’s
name by his daughter, Morag, his music is gradually being brought
before the public. Spearheading the revival is pianist Murray
McLachlan. The previous three volumes in the series were recorded
for Dunelm Records. All the volumes are now being handled by Divine
Art under their Diversions label. Volume 4 of the piano music
consists of one of Chisholm’s sonatinas coupled with four sets
of short pieces. Many of these are brief indeed and they enable
the listener to appreciate the concentration of Chisholm’s musical
thought. He is capable of writing with succinct economy and yet
there are always surprising twists of harmony and rhythm that
avoid the commonplace. Chisholm’s often searching language perhaps
stems from his vast knowledge of contemporary music. His formation
of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music
in Glasgow in 1929 afforded him the opportunity to meet many important
composers of the time. These included Bartók, Szymanowski, Casella
and Sorabji. He would certainly have been aware of Bartók’s idiosyncratic
way of preserving and utilising the folk songs of his country.
This may well have spurred Chisholm into his own long association
with Scottish folk music.
is with Scottish folk music that the CD begins: numbers 5 to
13 from the set of Piobaireachd. The remainder of the set appear
on volume 3 of the series. These are amazing works; the way
Chisholm combines the bagpipe tunes with the full resources
of modern harmony is extraordinary. The melodies are embellished
with ‘cutting’ as in all pipe music and this proliferates through
the texture like the tendrils of a plant. Sometimes Chisholm
presents pipe tunes simply, but occasionally seeks almost to
overwhelm them with a welter of churning dissonant harmonies.
The effect is often improvisatory in feel; in fact sometimes
Chisholm puts me in mind of the convulsive virtuosity of free
jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Harmonically, Boulez is even pre-echoed
as I mentioned in my review of the other works in the Piobaireachd
set on DDV24133. McLachlan copes with the significant pianistic
demands with great gusto and commitment. He convinces in music
which is far from easy to appreciate at once. Taken as a whole,
the set of 13 Piobaireachd may constitute, along with the superb
Sonata in A, his most significant piano works. His undoubted
eclecticism is kept under tight control in these works. The
Piobaireachd don’t feel merely experimental, they herald a brave
aesthetic that defines itself from the first bar. Perhaps most
movingly they seem suffused with nature - the harmonies blurring
like trees seen through a Scottish early morning haar, the melodies
weaving vegetally through rocky edifices, the rhythms following
the flow of the hills! This quality of the inward expression
of nature - a kind of ‘inscape’; the term used by Manley Hopkins
in relation to poetry - is sometimes noticeable in Chisholm.
It is a quality only heard in the best nature works such as
Grainger’s ‘Hill Song No. 1’.
Sonatina No. 3 is one of a set of six where he borrowed material
from renaissance composers. The four movements adapt music by
Dalza, Ganassi, anon. and Spinaccio. Chisholm is a master of
piano voicing and his skill comes to the fore here. McLachlan
has recorded this charming work before on Olympia OCD639.
catalogue of Chisholm piano music - just published by the Erik
Chisholm Trust - lists 25 pieces under the overall title Cameos.
In 1926 Curwen published a selection of eight of these pieces,
although not 1 to 8 as it states in the catalogue. So for those
wishing to check, Murray McLachlan plays nos. 1, 15, 3, 2, 17,
25, 9 and 20 according to the complete list in the catalogue.
He played the same set of eight on the aforementioned Olympia
disc, OCD639. I’m glad that McLachlan has re-recorded these
pieces since Olympia CDs have now become quite rare. Listen
to the way the pianist floats the melody of ‘The Mirror’ or
how he picks out the rhythms and shapes of what might be called
the ‘sideways’ motifs in ‘The Procession of Crabs’ – it is all
delightfully done. These pieces may be whimsically pictorial
but they hide much skilful writing.
wrote a great many Highland Sketches and McLachlan plays
six of them here. The tunes are taken from Patrick MacDonald’s
‘A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs’ published in 1784. Chisholm’s
versions of these tunes are full of off-kilter bass drones and
piquant dissonances although the language is less extreme than
in the Piobaireachd. McLachlan is by turns meditative and sprightly
as he characterises each tune.
his excellent notes, John Purser dates the six Portraits to
1924-29. They demonstrate a bold and iconoclastic musical personality
– Chisholm was only 20 when he began the set. ‘Épitaphe’ makes
much use of parallel minor ninths and clashing harmonies. The
manuscript of ‘Melodie Chiaroscura’ has a superscription from
an as yet unidentified author – although John Purser speculates
that it might be Whitman. In this superscription we read the
phrase ‘There is no unity of color … there can be no unity’.
This is perhaps equivalent in sentiment to that revealed in
Manley Hopkins’ poem Pied Beauty - ‘Glory be to God for
dappled things’. It could stand as a motto for much of Chisholm’s
music as well: its restless spirit, its eclecticism, its ever
seeking of new sounds and ways of expression. This is the most
beautiful and touching piece on the disc. The third portrait,
‘Porgy’ was inspired by the same Du Bose Heyward novel that
captured Gershwin’s attention. Suffice it to say that Chisholm’s
music is about as far from ‘Summertime’ as one could expect!
It is a score boiling with incident and drama that reminds me
of Alban Berg or even Michael Finnissy. The next two portraits
‘Agnes and the Maultasch’ and ‘Süss Communes with Malmi’ take
their inspiration from the work of Lion Feuchtwänger, the German-Jewish
writer who predicted the atrocities of the Nazis. Indeed the
second of them carries a dedication to Feuchtwänger. I don’t
know if Chisholm and Feuchtwänger ever met but it is easy to
see how the Scot, a life-long socialist, was attracted to the
German writer. ‘Agnes and the Maultasch’ finds Chisholm exploiting
the minor ninth to expressive effect. ‘Süss communes with Malmi’
presents a barren landscape obsessively filled with major thirds;
again Berg comes to mind. After this melting pot of modernism
the last piece comes as rather a shock – it’s a somewhat tame
paraphrase of a salon waltz. Suddenly the piano writing becomes
conventional but Chisholm still provides glimpses of unusual
this disc Murray McLachlan once again shows his dedication to
the Chisholm cause. I hope other pianists will be inspired by
him and play Chisholm’s music - some of it ought to find a place
in the repertoire. At his best Chisholm’s piano music can hold
its own among that of the first half of the twentieth century.
On this CD alone there are the unique Piobaireachd to be explored
and within the six Portraits, ‘Melodie Chiaroscura’ and ‘Porgy’
seem to me to be masterpieces.
Pattison has made a fine recording using the Steinway at Cheatham’s
School, Murray McLachlan has produced some of his best playing
and the booklet is packed with information. And the music? It
simply demands to be heard.
David Hackbridge Johnson