Erik CHISHOLM (1904 – 1965)
Piano Concerto No.1 Pěobaireachd (1932, rev. 1937) [33:35]
Piano Concerto No.2 Hindustani (1949, rev. 1953) [35:06]
Danny Driver (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Rory Macdonald
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 8-9 June 2011
HYPERION CDA67880 [68:43]
Until fairly recently Erik Chisholm was first and foremost a name, albeit an important one, of one having played a far from negligible role in the dissemination of modern music in Scotland. He was also very active as conductor and concert promoter. He gave a number of British premičres both of the classical repertoire and of many contemporary works. His music is now making its way into the catalogue and one realizes what a fine composer he was. Divine Art and Murray McLachlan have embarked on a more or less complete recording of his piano music and have already released seven volumes so far (reviews) whereas recordings of two substantial orchestral works have been issued on Dutton Epoch: the imposing Symphony No.2 Ossian (Dutton CDLX 7196) and the equally impressive Pictures from Dante (Dutton CDLX 7239). These recordings provide an opportunity for reappraisal of Chisholm's stature as a composer.
As John Purser, Chisholm’s biographer, mentions in his informative insert notes Pěobaireachd (often “simplified” as Pibroch) means 'pipe music' but also refers to the classical music of the Highland bagpipes. The four movements of Chisholm's First Piano Concerto are based on such music although the composer develops his tunes in an entirely original way eschewing any all-too-easy picturesque quality. So, the first movement – based on Maol Donn, now known as MacCrimmon's Sweetheart – opens in a quintessentially Scottish way. The oboe states the tune over a drone from the bassoons. The peaceful opening is soon torn apart by more energetic music so that the basic material is developed in a totally personal way. The same applies to the other movements, each but the final one based on a Scottish traditional tune. One may sometimes be forgiven for mentioning Grainger's music as a point of comparison but 'MacBartók', as Chisholm was often affectionately nicknamed, remains his own man throughout. However, Chisholm's piano concertos may often bring Bartók's own Third Piano Concerto to mind as John Purser rightly suggests in his insert notes but one has to keep in mind that Bartók's Third was composed in 1945: much later than Chisholm's First. It is also worth reminding that Chisholm gave the Scottish premičre of Bartók's First Piano Concerto (accompanied on the organ!) and that he was a personal friend of the Hungarian composer. So, back to the First Piano Concerto. The first movement is by far the most developed and it ends with a peaceful, slightly varied restatement of the opening. There follows a bustling Scherzo based on The Earl of Seaforth's Salute. This moves along with joyful energy. The more withdrawn atmosphere of the third movement – a theme and variations – is emphasised by a soft gong stroke at the outset and at the close. The composer marked the piano part to be played “very distant and impersonal” - The tune here is The Lament for Donald Bŕn MacCrimmon. The final movement is an energetic reel that does not seem to be based on any particular traditional tune. It is full of unexpected and slightly jazzy syncopations. The music slows down a bit in the middle section before rushing to its brilliant and abrupt close.
Chisholm had been a friend of Sorabji and spent a period of service in the Far East during the Second World War. He thus also became greatly interested in Indian music. Thus the Second Piano Concerto completed in 1949 and revised in 1953 draws on Indian ragas. As John Purser usefully mentions, “it should be remembered that a raga is not so much a tune as a melody-type”. He then goes into considerable detail thus emphasising the complexity of that particular genre. Chisholm's Second Piano Concerto is based on three ragas but the music soon branches out into exploring new territories in a way that clearly displays his deep knowledge and understanding. The Second Piano Concerto is a substantial and ambitious work that clearly needs repeated hearings to unravel its many riches. This is all the more so because, unlike the First Piano Concerto, it is based on a musical tradition with which many Westerners have little if any familiarity.
These substantial works receive carefully prepared and strongly committed performances that seem to do this wonderful music full justice; so does the superb recording. Full marks, too, for John Purser's well-informed and detailed insert notes. In short this is an important release and a most welcome addition to this distinguished composer's expanding discography. I cannot but recommend it with enthusiasm to anyone who enjoys strongly expressive and communicative contemporary music.
Two substantial works by a most distinguished composer whose music is well worth more than the occasional hearing.