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Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Violin Concerto (1950) [29:34]
From the True Edge of the Great World (1943) [9:29]
Dance Suite for orchestra and piano (1932) [23:24]
Matthew Trusler (violin)
Danny Driver (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2016, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
HYPERION CDA68208 [62:27]

For many years following his death the music of Erik Chisholm was resolutely ignored. It took a while for the tectonic plates to start moving but now, at least on disc, this Scottish composer's legacy has made real headway. The Chisholm Trust under the direction of Chisholm's daughter, Morag, has been and remains at the centre of this renaissance. John Purser, the composer's biographer has played a similarly crucial role and is the author of this disc's authoritative and engaging liner-essay (English, French, German).

BBC Radio 3 broadcasts have been some measure of the progress made but these things are transient. More permanent is the growing harvest of recordings of works being appraised, revived and lived. The piano music was taken up by Dunelm/Divine Arts and there are seven volumes to date (reviews). CDs of two substantial orchestral works have been issued on Dutton Epoch: the imposing Symphony No.2 Ossian (CDLX 7196) and the equally impressive Pictures from Dante (Dutton CDLX 7239). His 50-minute opera Simoon (after Strindberg) has been recorded by Delphian (DCD34139).

Hyperion, working with pianist Danny Driver, who has done so much for the York Bowen revival (review review), has made a disc of Chisholm's two piano concertos and that is now joined by this one. Rather inspirationally they share the artwork of Moya Hogarth (b.1952). It is good to see the art of a living painter being used. The piano concertos disc used Hogarth's "Scottish Lochs" while this one displays her "White Sands Reflect Golden Skies, Isle of Barra" (2010).

Glaswegian Chisholm was a big wheel in the musical life of the city. He brought the great names there to perform at concerts including Bartók, Hindemith, Schmitt, Szymanowski and Casella. His book on the operas of Janáček was early on the scene and played its part in bringing the operas to audience appreciation outside the Communist Bloc. He also conducted the British premieres of Idomeneo, The Trojans and Bluebeard’s Castle.

Chisholm's own music ploughed a distinctive furrow, rejecting Victorian models and finding sustenance in Scottish and Indian sources amongst others. The Indian (Hindustani) aspect prompts the drawing of parallels with the music of John Foulds. He headed the College of Music and the Faculty of Music at the University of Cape Town and died in South Africa.

The Violin Concerto was premiered in the 1930s in Cape Town with Szymon Goldberg and at the Edinburgh International Festival with Max Rostal and the BBC Scottish Orchestra under Ian Whyte. Matthew Trusler takes the solo here. This is a violinist who is an adventurer in exploration and advocacy. Working with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales he has taken up the concertos by William Mathias and Grace Williams. For Dutton he has recorded works for violin and orchestra by Julius Harrison and Montague Phillips. His latest disc is of the two Prokofiev concertos for Orchid Classics.

As with the Second Piano Concerto, Hindustani modes exert a grip. The first movement is a Passacaglia telescopico (in modo Vasantee). This switches, with mercurial swiftness, between haunting soliloquy, battering and scorching virtuosity and singing Bergian intensity. Its fury recalls RVW's Fourth Symphony but the movement ends in a haunting solo coaxed and cosseted by a sensitively touched-in orchestra.

The second movement again has passages reminiscent of RVW in turbulent mood but there are also becalmed moments. Just as rapidly these can morph into tempered virtuosity. Chisholm can find a furnace blast when his plot requires.

The third movement is Aria in modo Sohani. This is based upon Rag Sohani which John Purser, in his astute and rewarding notes, reminds us played a role in Chisholm's solo piano work, Night Song of the Bards (review). Its solipsistic solo musing is heard through a calming orchestral tissue. The music rises to a turbulently majestic peak before passing through episodes that remind me yet again of Vaughan Williams in the dark moments he found for Apollyon.

The final Fuga senza tema is influenced by all the preceding material. This capering fuga dances wickedly. Some hoarsely shaped pecking and chattering from the violin adds to an excoriating mixture.

From the True Edge of the Great World (1943) is a gift of a title. It refers to the Scottish Highlands and Islands. "Air an Oir" (Gaelic for 'on the edge') gave its title to at least one Highlands and Islands Enterprise conference and more accessibly to a Runrig DVD. Murray Maclachlan, who has done so much for Chisholm's music recorded the extended solo piano work (24 Preludes) that has this title (review review). The present piece for orchestra with prominent piano comprises three of the Preludes, as orchestrated by Chisholm.

There is some rough parallel here between Chisholm and Ronald Stevenson whose two volumes of piano music on Toccata by Christopher Guild are a comparison. The Stevenson's Scottish works are to be found on volume 1 (TOCC0272).
The first is The Song of the mavis which has a Prokofiev-like tang and a warm glow. It closes in a stomping dance which has the wild whoop of Chisholm's Piano Concerto as first recorded by Murray Maclachlan. Ossianic lay attains a lofty grandeur. Again the solo piano part is prominent. The music switches rapidly from serious stern majesty to inwardness but never to a lightness of mood. We end with Port a beul (Gaelic for Mouth Music). This is a lyrical piece with a vital quick pulse and ends in a plunging joy that positively shouts Percy Grainger.

The Dance Suite is for orchestra and piano. The composer gave it its premiere complete at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam with Constant Lambert conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is dedicated ‘To my dear wife’. The first movement is a rowdy stormy reel with restless machine-gun dissonance as an additive. It sports the sort of uproarious crowded activity you hear in Grainger's The Warriors and in Chisholm's own First Piano Concerto. The Piobaireachd ‘pipe music’ movement is laced with curling bagpipe dissonances amid magical textures (1:23). Then comes a cheery, clattering and slightly inebriated Scottish march. The final Reel struts and steps it out in Graingerian good humour; echoes of Scotch Strathspey and Reel. It's rather like Tam O'Shanter blundering into the hall, unkempt and confidently woozy. He's game for a stramash as he shambles and lurches around Chisholm's world. As with the other two works the sound conjured up by Simon Eadon, Dave Powell and Andrew Keener does the music faithful and inspired service.
Hyperion bring on more than an hour of Chisholm's unfamiliar and attention-grabbing music: rowdy, strange, exultant, dissonant and wheezily non-conformist.

Rob Barnett
See also John France's article Discovering Erik Chisholm



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