Erik CHISHOLM (1904-65)
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 31 August, 1-2 September 2020, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34259 [67:50]
The Erik Chisholm Facebook page succinctly sums up the ethos of this CD. This is a “real voyage of discovery since many of these marvellous songs have not been heard for at least 60 years, if ever.” I am not sure exactly how many Chisholm composed, but it was a fair proportion of his oeuvre, possibly nearly a quarter. It is reprehensible that this is the first major survey of these notable songs.
A “seminal moment” in Chisholm’s life was the gift of Patrick MacDonald’s A Collection of Scottish Airs, published in 1784. This volume was included in some “old music” gifted to the 10-year-old boy, by a hotelier in Millport, the Isle of Cumbrae, in the Clyde Estuary. The book was to remain by his side until his early death. John Purser, in the liner notes, explains that Chisholm used many of these “airs” in his Scottish Airs for Children, A Celtic Song Book and in many other compositions including the William Soutar settings on this CD.
The reader will be relieved that I am not going to give a detailed commentary on all 36 songs; that would simply be a repetition of Purser’s notes. I would suggest listening to groups of songs rather than through-listening; Soutar, Scott and non-Scottish poets, for example.
Two important divisions are apparent here. When Chisholm is setting the poems of his second wife, Lillias Scott, he uses straightforward accompaniments to equally direct melodies of his own devising. In the Soutar songs, the composer has dug into the MacDonald Collection for the melodies and has created more “adventurous” accompaniments.
The main event on this CD is the setting of seven Poems of Love by Lillias Scott. Some of these are clearly love songs but there are other subjects, such as in the Lament, which explores the “transitoriness of life” and the celebration of the sheer joy of living found in Hert’s Sang. My favourite is the beautiful Skreigh o' Day (Crack of Dawn) which is a “homage” to the mountain, Ben Cruachan. It is seen from the perspective of a young man, waking in the hills, and watching the sun rise. It is dreamy, musically half asleep, and quite beautiful in its static effect.
A few words about the poet William Soutar (1898-1943): he had a tragic life. After service in the Royal Navy during the First World War, he studied at Edinburgh University. During this time, he contracted ankylosing spondylitis, which is a rare and debilitating form of arthritis and was paralysed for the final 14 years of his life. He is best remembered for his Scots language lyrics, although he did write in English. Many of his poems reflect his interest in ballads and the folkloric traditions of his country. Other formal structures incorporate epigrams, riddles, bairn-rhymes (children’s pieces.) One of his most amusing collections are “whigmaleeries”, which means “whimsical oddments”.
Chisholm chose a good range of Soutar’s verse, from the dreamy Summer Song to the humour of The Prodigy, The Braw Plum and The Three Worthies. More serious is the “thoughtful and rhetorical” A Dirge for Summer.
Other poets set, range from the inevitable “Anon” to a Russian translation of The Chailleach -The Spiteful Old Woman. The anonymous children’s rhyme Snail, snail, shoot out your horn, would appear to be a magical spell for getting fair weather. The well-kent The Fairies by the Cavalier Poet Robert Herrick is full of impish humour. Other non-Scots settings include G.K. Chesterton’s, The Donkey, A.E Housman’s The Offending Eye, W.B. Yeats Cradle-Croon and Randall Swingler’s politicised Sixty Cubic Feet.
The music here covers a wide range of emotion, from humorous to melancholy, to the celebration of landscape, the supernatural and the political. Stylistically, Chisholm balances a high regard for his national musical heritage with an approachable modernism that is always satisfying and often perfectly synthesised.
The line-up of singers and the accompanist all hail from Scotland. This is clearly appropriate, as many of these songs call for the Scots language. I enjoyed the performances; each artist contributes much emotion, character and, where appropriate, humour, to these varied numbers and the use of the three different voices adds great variety and interest.
The informative and readable liner notes are by the Scottish composer, playwright and historian, John Purser, who wrote the definitive study of the composer, reviewed here. They give a splendid overview of Erik Chisolm’s achievement, set the songs in context, and provide concise descriptions of each number. It would have been helpful to have the poets’ names included in the track listing, and composition dates are typically not given. All the song texts are printed, including glosses on Scots words. The instantly recognizable subject on the cover is from a colour lithograph by Ernest William Haslehurst (1866-1949).
This is a selection from Erik Chisholm’s catalogue but there are plenty more; for example, only two numbers were selected from the Twelve Songs, so, I am eagerly anticipating a further volume from Delphian Records which, hopefully, will feature the current performers who have given such an
fine account of these remarkable songs.
The Donkey (Twelve Songs, No. 11) [2:09]
The Bee (Twelve Songs, No. 9) [0:59]
Snail, snail, shoot out your horn [0:58]
The Fairies [0:59]
The Prodigy [1:41]
Summer Song [1:19]
The Braw Plum [0:48]
The Three Worthies [1:37]
Dirge for Summer [2:27]
Love's Reward (Poems of Love, No. 1) [1:46]
Johnnie Logie (Poems of Love, No. 2) [1:16]
Skreigh o' Day (Poems of Love, No. 3) [1:49]
Fragment (Lament) (Poems of Love, No. 4) [1:45]
Prayer (Poems of Love, No. 5) [1:37]
Innocence (Poems of Love, No. 6) [2:01]
Hert's Sang (Poems of Love, No. 7) [2:00]
Oiséan's Song [3:36]
Sixty Cubic Feet [3:51]
The Offending Eye [1:28]
Another Incitement for the Gaels [1:44]
Diarmait's Sleep [2:25]
Fiddler's Bidding [0:46]
The Barnyards o' Delgaty [1:431
There's a fine braw thistle [3:57]
The Chailleach - My Spiteful Old Woman [1:57]
Dan Liughair (A Tale of Lear) [2:28]
The Chailleach - Шейла, моя злая жена [2:05]
The Mermaid's Song [3:45]
To his love whom he has Kissed against her Will [1:25]
Home Sickness [1:41]