Erik CHISHOLM(1904-1965) Music for Piano - Volume 6 Ceol Mor Dances (1943) [16:40] Dunedin Suite (undated) [16:13]
Scottish Airs for piano(1951) [12:06] Dance of the Princess Jaschya-Sheena, for piano(undated)
[2:38] The Wisdom Book, for piano (undated) [4:33] Night Song of the Bards - Six Nocturnes, for piano (1944-51)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
rec. 30 May 2006, 19 December 2006 & 20 December 2006, Whiteley
Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester
DIVERSIONS DDV24149 [77:30]
This is the sixth of eight projected volumes of
the complete piano music of Erik Chisholm (see reviews of Vols
1-4 and Vol.
5). As there is no catalogue of his music currently available,
it is not possible to tell what has still to be released and,
if there are some hidden gems that have been overlooked, although
I imagine that Messrs. McLachlan and Purser will have contrived
to omit nothing of importance.
The briefest of glances at the Chisholm
Trust website will show a huge variety of music in many
genres and combinations of instruments. Yet the ‘theme’
that runs through Erik Chisholm’s music are the works
for the piano: they are essential to gaining an appreciation
of his musical achievement. Furthermore, any understanding of
this music has to take account of the various stages in his
compositional career: he helpfully provided these details in
an excruciatingly badly hand-written catalogue produced in 1963:-
Early works 1923-27
Scottish Music 1929 to 1940 (?)
Hindustani works 1945-51
Like any attempt at classification, this is surely only a rule
of thumb: there will be plenty of exceptions. However it is
a good reference marker to begin exploration of Chisholm’s
music. One final suggestion. I would suggest the listener takes
this CD slowly: it is not something that can be put into the
CD player and through-played and half-ignored. I guess I would
recommend that each work be played separately - after
having read the programme notes.
Before progressing with the review I must write that my only
serious complaint about this CD is the lack of dates for most
of the works. In fact, the first set of pieces, the Ceol
Mor Dances only indicates when the work had been orchestrated-
not when originally composed! The ‘catalogue’ of
piano music referenced by the Chisholm WebPages also lacks dates
for most of these works. I find that it is important to my listening
that I am able to situate the work in its historical and chronological
milieu. Even reference to John Purser’s excellent biography
has been little help as a number of the works performed on this
CD are not indexed. However, I guess that from the titles of
the pieces it is possible to speculate as to which ‘period’
of the composer’s activity they were written.
The Ceol Mor Dances are ‘technically challenging’.
John Purser notes that the title is a contradiction in terms.
‘Ceol Mor’ is Gaelic for ‘Big Music’.
This is opposed to ‘Ceol Beag’ which literally means
‘little music’ but is also a conversational idiom
for ‘dance music.’ Certainly, these complex pieces
must not be regarded as some attempt to write pastiche ‘ceilidh’
music: they are much more technically involved than that. There
are echoes of Eric Satie in these pages and the pianism look
towards the European tradition in spite of the eruption of a
number of Scottish fingerprints. I am reminded of Liszt and
his Hungarian Dances - few villagers would have jigged
the night away to that music: the same can be said of these
dances by Chisholm.
The Dunedin Suite was inspired by The Dunedin Association
which was set up in 1911 by Janey Drysdale with the aim of supporting
Scottish music, however, by the nineteen thirties it had declined
in its influence and achievement. Erik Chisholm was asked to
try to revivify it, which he succeeded in doing. The Suite was
written in a style that juxtaposes the classicism of his Sonatinas
and the native music of Scotland. It is conceived in five well-balanced
and successful movements. There is much of interest in these
pages - most especially the gorgeously moving Sarabande. One
of the finest moments is the fourth movement, the Strathspey.
This opens with music reminiscent of ‘old world dignity’
before eliding into the ‘dance’ form with its dotted
rhythms and highland exuberance, but always tinged with a little
regret. Technically the final ‘jig’ is the most
impressive - effectively a short two-part invention that balances
the composer’s Scottish and neo-classical influences.
Perhaps it could be subtitles Bach goes to Barra?
The Scottish Airs is a work that utilises Caledonian tunes published
by Patrick MacDonald in his A Collection of Highland Vocal
Airs: Chisholm used this as a source book a number of times.
These pieces are individually enjoyable, but I feel that it
can be a little difficult listening to nine pieces of which
the shortest is a mere 35 seconds. Once again, I suggest these
‘airs’ be approached after a study of the liner
notes and a reading of the brief descriptions and the translations
associated with each air. Murray McLachlan has suggested that
this work can be ‘considered as Chisholm’s response
to Bartok’s Improvisation on Nine Hungarian Peasant
Songs.’ Although each movement is discrete it can
be perceived as a single ‘movement’. The music is
strongly Scottish in mood and effect with each section promoting
a different atmosphere - wistfulness, grandeur, eeriness and
Erik Chisholm has written that his Dance of the Princess
Jaschya-Scheena is a ‘pot-boiler.’ However it
is difficult to imagine this rather sultry piece being in the
category of a recital encore, nevertheless it has its attractions.
I am not sure who the princess was in fictional or historical
terms, but she does seem to be realised in a manner of orientalism
that Cyril Scott would have recognised.
For me the Wisdom Book is the hardest work to come to
terms with. Each of these eleven sections is extremely brief
with the shortest lasting a mere 16 seconds: the longest is
the finale at 42 seconds! The programme note tells us that these
are musical illustrations of folk-adages and were composed for
children to play. For example, No. 8 is entitled ‘The
tortoise and the hare’ whilst the last is entitled ‘Set
a begger on horsbak and he will run his hors out of breth [spelling
as written in the score, apparently] They are all too brief
to get a grip on, although I believe that they could be rather
fun for young pianist to play.
The last work on this CD is probably the most impressive and
certainly one that establishes the composer as a master of his
genre. John Purser has written that these pieces ‘call
for tremendous virtuosity and intense concentration,’
and concludes by suggesting that they require ‘humility
from both performer and listener.’ The Nocturnes: Night
Song of the Bards is most certainly not a series of ‘nocturnes’
in the style of Frederick Chopin or John Field. The work was
composed at a time when Chisholm was influenced by Hindustani
music. Yet the initial inspiration was taken from an anonymous
Gaelic story collected in James Macpherson’s Croma
which dates back to the 9th century. It is worth
quoting the introduction to this tale:-
‘The story of it is this. Five Bards, passing the night
in the house of a chief, who was a poet himself, went severally
to make their observations on, and returned with an extempore
description of, night. The night happened to be in October,
as appears from the poem, and in the north of Scotland, it has
all that variety which the bards ascribe to it, in their descriptions.’
John Purser describes this enigmatic music in three full pages
of text in the liner notes which deserves to be studied. I was
impressed with the sheer magical quality of this music. To my
ear, it reminded me of the music Kaikosru Sorabji. However,
I note that the German musicologist, Dr. Jürgen Schaarwächter
writing on the Web, has suggested that Busoni and Alkan are
never too far removed from the sound-world of this long piece.
It is certainly a work that, more than any other fuses the various
musical influences of Erik Chisholm.
The playing is superb, and reflects the massive commitment that
Murray McLachlan has made to the piano music of Erik Chisholm.
The programme notes are extensive and excellent (in spite of
the above comment about dating) and give as much information
as can be wished for. I have noted in a previous review that
it is always difficult to produce a ‘complete works’
cycle of any composer: this is compounded by the fact that Chisholm’s
music is not really in the public domain, much of it appears
to be unpublished and is barely represented on disc by any other
pianist. It seems unlikely that anyone will attempt a ‘competitive’
cycle over the coming years. This is, and will remain, the definitive
edition of Erik Chisholm’s piano music for many years
to come. To that end, Dunelm and Murray McLachan have made a
magnificent effort: their goals have been achieved in every
possible way. It is a monument to Scottish, European and World
music by any standards of judgement.
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