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Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Straloch Suite (1933) [15:59]
Scottish Airs for Children (1940s) [27:54]
Sonata in A An Riobain Dearg (abridged version, 2004) (1939)
Murray McLachlan, piano
Rec. Whiteley Hall, Chethams School, Manchester, 5-7 April 2004. DDD
DUNELM RECORDS DRD0222/LC-12952 [77:24]


The music of Erik Chisholm, for many years totally neglected in his native land (‘out of sight, out of mind’ as he forsook Scotland for Cape Town) is now being explored and if the present disc is representative then that neglect is indefensible. It is now known, thanks to his daughter, that his list of compositions is extensive, including two piano concertos, two symphonies, a violin concerto, operas and more.

Here on this disc, as well as a second outing of the big Piano Sonata, we have a Suite, and a set of children’s pieces, demonstrating a musical personality of great vitality – nationalist in persuasion but speaking (or singing) in accents universally acceptable.

The expansive three-movement Straloch Suite draws its material from the lute book of Sir Robert Gordon of Straloch (1627) [lost, but existing in a copy in the hand of G.F. Graham in 1847]. This is a compendium of ancient Scottish airs of considerable variety and by no means devoid of contemporary reference. Chisholm’s treatment, although based on dance, is contrapuntal – neo-classical in its clarity. Of its three movements, the central is longer than the other two together, using three tunes which he blends into a "thick-textured setting" with a richly eloquent love song.

The set of Scots tunes for children also has its origin in the early music of Scotland – in this case the 1784 collection of airs (laoidh) gathered by one Patrick MacDonald . This is a Joy!! If only this music were to replace the arid counterpoint and pop/jazz bias in the musical education of the child today ...! These brief and exciting pieces, full of vitality as well as eloquent songful material, are dressed with musical distinction by a master hand; simple, not in any way overdone, but totally ‘right’ and expressive of a genuine Scottish element without any trace of the execrable trappings of musical tourism. At first the music might suggest by association, Bartók and Mikrokosmos – yet I fancy that there is more of a relationship with the unpublished (and largely unknown) Intuitions of Francis George Scott, written about the same time. They also remind me of a set of children’s pieces "Per La Gioventu" by the Italian Tagliapietra – introduced to me many years ago by Ronald Stevenson. These Chisholm pieces, like the Tagliapietra, provide a perfect introduction for children to the accents of "modern" music yet maintaining its roots in tradition.

I reviewed the Piano Sonata as recorded earlier by MacLachlan when it was played in its entirety. In the present recording MacLachlan has elected to make several cuts – cuts which appear to be substantial enough to excise some six minutes from the performance. Some 12 bars or so appear to be lost in the first movement. The Scherzo is played faster than previously, with minor emendations. The 3rd has a cut towards the end leaving a quiet conclusion. The most substantial elisions are in the finale, leaving the strong melodic romantic pulse to develop to its apotheosis. Chisholm left the Sonata in uncollected sections – and time will tell whether the cuts more clearly fulfil his intentions.

An athletic work, based on the piobearachd, ‘The Red Ribbon’ has an opening pipe tune decorated with grace notes in the style of classical pipe music. The whole first movement is a substantial variation structure penetrated by an aerial melodic strand redolent of the Isles. The second (Scherzo) begins with a demonic left-hand rhythm – probably the most Bartókian moment in the work – its energies sharply contrasting with the ensuing Lament (in memoriam the sinking of the submarine ‘Thetis’ in June 1939.) This movement is dark and sombre, with dramatic gestures. The final movement is an exuberant dance which metamorphoses into a kind of clan march, and the work reaches a resplendent climax of romantic proportions.

MacLachlan has made the study of Chisholm’s music his own. There is a kind of repressed excitement in these pieces that is infectious. It is certainly to be hoped that these exploratory excursions into Chisholm’s substantial output will unearth other revelations.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

See also review by David Hackbridge Johnson

see also

ERIK CHISHOLM Piano Music Murray McLachlan Piano. Olympia OCD 639
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