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Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Piano Concerto No. 1 Piobaireachd (rev 1937) [35.59]
Star Point (1923-27)
Sonatina in G minor (1922)
Four Elegies (1929-40)
Sonatina No. 4 (1929-40)
With Cloggs On (undated)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
Kelvin Ensemble/Julian Clayton
Rec 28 August 2000
ORDERS: £10-00 + 95p p&p, from Dunelm Records, 2 Park Close, Glossop, Derbyshire SK13 7RQ (e-mail: sales@dunelm-records.co.uk ; web site www.dunelm-records.co.uk ).

This recording of Erik Chisholm's 1930 Piano Concerto 'Piobaireachd' (pibroch), last heard in 1938 (that being broadcast - the premiere was 1933) results from the enthusiasm of the composer's daughter Morag, that of Murray McLachlan, and also of the Kelvin Ensemble, who mounted a live performance (from which this recording was taken) at the NAYO Festival on 28 August 2001.

Although published by OUP in 1939, finding a set of parts. proved difficult, and the solo piano part had to be edited since it did not match that in the score! It is therefore something of a triumph that this exciting work can now be heard again, in an authoritative performance - after 60 years, a sad reflection on the position of the composer in Scotland over these years (only now being remedied, at least in some measure, by a current if belated series of broadcast concerts. Heaven knows what the Edinburgh Festival people think about!)

A major work, of considerable scope orchestrally, taking material from the music of the Scottish bagpipe, must be an adventurous concept (even more so his 2nd Concerto on Hindustani themes *)

Apart from an earlier example, in name at any rate, in Mackenzie's Pibroch Suite for violin, the only comparable example I can think of is in the music of Ronald Stevenson (both his Passacaglia and 'Young Scotland' Suite). So this is Scottish music. The very opening bars with their undercurrent drone and the delicate filigree of the 'urlar', the 'theme' of the pibroch with here a characteristic upward 6th, are surely evocative of the echoing stillness of a highland vista - lochans and craggy slopes. Pibroch, the theme with its variants and crowning 'creanluidh', its range circumscribed by the limitations of the pipes with its nine-note scale and the tang of the C and F sharpened microtonally, which add a unique colour to the music, is nonetheless a virtuosic form. The Concerto no less so.

Chisholm is not hampered by these considerations and the variants include a toccata-like Scots dance and a slow richly lyrical episode (reminiscent of the Bluebird dance in Busoni's Red Indian Diary), the movement progressing to its ultimate 'creanluidh' - the culmination of the movement. The second Scherzo is a rhythmic pattern, echoed by trumpet, with echoes of the Cockle Gatherers' 'puirt a beul' (literally 'mouth music' - vocal dance music.). A kind of jazzy syncopation develops before the music dies away, but with a final flourish. The stroke of a gong and tremolo strings suggest, in the slow movement, a highland mist through which the piano essays another pibroch-like melody, like pebbles falling in a clear pool. Penetrated by a Baxian trumpet the movement progresses in a nocturnal atmosphere of remote loveliness, becoming more and more intense. The final movement's dance rhythms of reel and strathspey are a foil to the darkness of the preceding movement, again recalling the puirt a beul rhythm but with a kind of ribaldry.

There is an eclectic element in Chisholm's music - not surprising given his activities as composer, conductor, lecturer, administrator - his work in Glasgow in the 1930s and his subsequent role as educator in Cape Town. The remainder of the disc is given to a handful (a 'mighty' handful at that) of piano solo works ranging from the 18 minute long G minor Sonatina to the brief but dramatic First Elegie - all four Elegies are included and in these dark songs of tragic import the aptness of McLachlan's sobriquet for the composer of MacBartók is understandable. MacBartók is even more prominent in the final work, enigmatically entitled 'With Cloggs On', an elaborate fantasy, described by the pianist as "wildly rhapsodic, fiercely defiant, virtuosic, impulsive, energetic and delightfully unpredictable" which he also suggests could equally well describe its composer! It is certainly virtuosic - as virtuosic as 'Islamey' or 'Bourrée Fantasque', and as colourful.

The two Sonatinas are quite different in character - the two-movement 4th being an elegantly seasoned revitalising of old Spanish lute music - the G minor, with plaintive dropping phrases and decorative arabesque, largely reflective slow movement, which occasionally sparkles like Billy Mayerl, and an athletic rondo finale. The curiously entitled 'Star Point' turns out to be a most attractive idyll, with a quasi-French influence recalling, in places, the music of John Ireland.

This disc is a most welcome survey (as it were) of an unjustly forgotten composer. I would trust that other major works - 10 operas, 2 Symphonies, 5 ballets, 4 Concertos - will not linger unheard for another 60 years.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

* "We are really Orientals in our singing, and the gravity of the Gaelic singers is that of the East. Hannagan 'Songs of the Irish Gaels' CUP 1927


and Rob Barnett writes:-

This is the second all-Chisholm disc to appear. The first (from Olympia) was a solo piano recital again from the hands of Murray MacLachlan.

The Concerto is a gorgeous work twisted from the silk and hemp of Bartók, Ravel and Szymanowski and the roughened cloth of the Scottish Highlands. Praise be that this is no tartan travesty. Chisholm delves as deep as Bartók, Novak, Karlowicz and Szymanowski into their own glimmering hills and massy heights. His successors include people like Edward Maguire, Ronald Stevenson and Malcolm Macdonald (the latter of whose Waste of Seas needs to be recorded in its orchestral version). Chisholm shows loving respect for his spiritual sources but is not enchained by them. Vividly fantastic energy shakes the rafters in the finale like the progeny of say John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych and Walton's Sinfonia Concertante both of which Chisholm would probably have heard at Edinburgh's Reid concerts in the 20s and 30s.

The other works are for solo piano. Star point possibly flows from Chisholm's interest in astronomy. It is a work of his teenage years and would nestle well in a recital of Hovhaness's solo piano music. The Sonatina in G minor is likewise a work of Chisholm's teenage years proceeding gingerly at times and otherwise in awkward Pierrot-like exploration. The Four Elegies are pithy, brief indeed, rumbling with Bartókian clangour, dark moods and traces of bagpipe skirl and abrasion. Chisholm has been dubbed MacBartók and one can hear why. The Fourth Sonatina is a derivative work drawing on the Spanish lutenists and has the feeling of the Rubbra Farnaby Improvisations. The impact of these pieces registers well and not all tentatively. With Cloggs On is the only surviving or achieved movement of a Cornish Suite. Such defiance and violence are in the line of Busonian virtuosity espoused by Ronald Stevenson. Howard Ferguson's Sonata is perhaps a close cousin to this music. Murray McLachlan is not one to half-heartedly embrace music. These are all out performances.

I understand that there is talk of a recording of the Second Piano Concerto - The Hindoustani. Let us keep our fingers crossed that this will produce a sequel to the present startlingly engaging disc. There are also two sturdy 1930s/1940s symphonies in need of attention.

All credit to Dunelm for picking up the gauntlet and running so successfully with this challenge. The music of the British Isles is a much more varied phenomenon than timidly popular anthologisers would have us believe. Chisholm's is a dissidently nonconformist voice amid the gentle mainstream.

Rob Barnett

And from Phil Scowcroft:-
(repeated from last October)


Erik Chisholm (1904-65) was a Scotsman who also had important associations with South Africa and an awareness of the major composers of the first half of the 20th Century, especially Bartók.

The principal work here is the 1st Piano Concerto Piobaireachd which, in its revised version, dates from 1937: a recording of a performance in Glasgow in 2000, its first since around 1940. It is strongly influenced by Scottish bagpipe music, not least in its long, expansive first movement. The exciting scherzo features biting brass, and a few lapses of intonation here do remind us that this is a student orchestra and a ‘live’ performance, but both the beautiful Adagio and thrusting finale fare well. Murray McLachlan gives a splendid account of the solo part and the 50-piece Kelvin Ensemble support excellently in general.

The rest of a generously-filled disc is devoted to early, or earlyish, piano solos by Chisholm recorded by Mr. McLachlan in South Africa in 1999. These afford fair variety. The G minor Sonatina (1922), rather long for the "Sonatina" designation (its three movements take almost 18 minutes), is rhapsodic and sometimes diffuse but is already well written for the instrument. The other Sonatina is quite different, very brief and charming and based on fragments of early Spanish lute music. Star Point explores unusual sonorities which undoubtedly grow on one; the rugged Elegies show Bartók’s example applied to the Celtic idiom; With Cloggs On is a substantial movement, impulsive and again rhapsodic, perhaps inspired by Cornwall, also Celtic of course like Chisholm’s native Scotland and certainly brilliantly written for piano.

Mr. McLachlan’s virtuosity and his sympathy with Chisholm emerges in all these pieces and, all told, the disc satisfyingly expands our knowledge of the composer, which was previously confined (on CD) to a 1998 Olympia release.

The transfers have been excellently managed and, in general, this is a very recommendable release. We are told that the record industry is in decline but the enterprise of smaller labels continues to delight and instruct us. Dunelm is up there with them.
Philip Scowcroft

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