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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 recent flurry of interest in Chisholm's music is due in no small part to the enterprising Dunelm Records label. As well as the Piano Concerto No. 1 and solo piano music, (DRD 0174), Dunelm has also produced the excellent CD, 'Piano Music of Eric Chisholm and his friends', including much of the music played by Murray McLachlan in his Wigmore Hall Chisholm centenary recital in January 2004, (DRD0219). This new CD includes a new recording of the Sonata in A (1939) 'An Riobain Dearg'. When I reviewed the January concert I described how impressive this work was in live performance. Now that there are two recordings of the Sonata on CD I am able to confirm my opinion that this is a major example of 20th century piano writing. The new CD also contains the Straloch Suite and the Scottish Airs.

The Straloch Suite exists in several versions ranging from an early piano version in 1923 to a later version in 1933. It is the later version that is recorded here. An interesting combination of influences are revealed. There are elements of Liszt and Brahms in the piano writing. This is not surprising, especially in the case of Brahms, since Chisholm was a pupil of Brahms enthusiast, Sir Donald Tovey. However, Chisholm’s harmonies are quite unusual and respond to the modal nature of the tunes he chose for the building blocks of his suite. The influence of Bartók can also be felt, particularly in the long second movement. There are one or two passages that are reminiscent of Bartók's Suite for Piano written in 1916. It is likely that Chisholm knew this work as he was a personal friend of the Hungarian composer.

The melodic material for the Straloch Suite is taken from the Robert Gordon of Straloch lute book of 1627 . McLachlan captures the contrast between the first movement's portentous introduction and the mischievous Allegro con spirito that follows it. Chisholm makes significant use of counterpoint but with a light touch that avoids the merely academic. The substantial second movement combines further tunes from the Straloch lute book. The Finale contains some remarkable accents across the beat in the left-hand under running quavers in the right. The lyrical middle section is based on I long for thy virginity, a tune which bears a passing resemblance to the Londonderry Air. This is an exciting suite and it would be good to hear the five-movement version as well.

The 22 tunes used in the Scottish Airs for Children are taken from Patrick MacDonald's A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs published in 1784. Chisholm’s work ought to become a classic of the teaching repertoire as it shows all the ingenuity and economy of means required to create music for young performers that is without any hint of the patronising or banal. Chisholm's approach bears comparison with Bartók's two volumes of music For Children and similar excellent volumes by Kabalevsky and Nielsen. I was put in mind of Nielsen's collection of piano music For Young and Old, opus 53. Chisholm and Nielsen share a similar approach to the keyboard in their respective works. Simplicity is the key throughout although the tunes are often given interesting modal or polymodal accompaniments by Chisholm. Some of the pieces are obviously for more advanced students; the composer intended to group the airs in three books for different standards of pianistic ability. If published in this form they would make a valuable resource for teachers and a fascinating mine of compositional skills in miniature for students of composition. McLachlan plays these charming pieces with an alertness to their different moods and colours.

The final work on the CD is the Sonata in A (1939) 'An Riobain Dearg'. This version differs from that on the of DRD 0219 as substantial cuts had been made for this new recording. It is not clear whether these are the composer's own cuts or whether they have been made by Murray McLachlan. This new version is about six minutes shorter than the earlier recording. The cuts seem mainly related to repetitious sections in the scherzo, slow movement and finale. Nothing thematic seems to have been omitted. Both versions are superbly played and very exciting. The full version benefits by creating the impression of an even more weighty work. The scherzo particularly in its long version seems almost demonic, whereas in the short version it assumes a more classical aspect. Some of the grinding sequences in the multi-terraced middle section of the slow movement seemed to be missing in the short version. In the long version their effect is almost overwhelming. Those interested in Chisholm need not exercise themselves over which version to buy as both CDs should be purchased simply on the strength of the excellent music contained as companion pieces to each version of the Sonata. This new CD is very well recorded and the booklet contains informative liner notes by John Purser. In my view a Chisholm CD is self recommending; for those still doubting the composer’s worth this review merely urges exploration without delay.

David Hackbridge Johnson

see also
ERIK CHISHOLM Piano Music Murray McLachlan Piano. Olympia OCD 639 MusicWeb SPECIAL OFFER From Stock: £10 P&P free Worldwide
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