Sunday, 26 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 4 – first Provincial performance (Gloucester)

by Estella Canziani
I have transcribed the long, unsigned review from the Gloucester Saturday Journal, of the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society Annual Concert held on 6 March 1919. This included the first ‘provincial’ performance of Howells’ Puck’s Minuet.

The Gloucestershire Orchestral Society gave its annual concert at the Shire Hall, Gloucester, on Thursday afternoon, [1] when, having regard to the Society’s well-established reputation and the attractiveness of the programme, it was not surprising to find that a large audience had assembled.  To hear a Beethoven Symphony, and that the No.5 in C minor, were almost ‘Paradise enow.’ But there was other matter -Saint-Saëns Symphonic Poem, ‘Danse Macabre,’ Herbert Howells’  new composition, ‘Puck’s Minuet’ songs by Miss Megan Forster, [2] and a violin solo by Mr. W.H. Reed. [3]
For Gloucestershire stay-at-homes the opportunities of hearing a symphony are few and far between. Even at the last Three Choirs’ Festival in those pre-historic days before the war, the programme contained no more than two, if memory serves; which is small number enough when one thinks of the possibilities which the presence of a festival band offers – but the claims of ‘church music’ have to be considered. Here, then, the Orchestral Society steps in for our education and entertainment. It is not necessary at this time of day to dilate upon the beauty of the Beethoven Symphony, with which Thursday’s concert opened – especially of the first two movements. The richness with which the master elaborated the comparatively few and simple themes is remarkable, yet all is so clear and expressive; and if we did not derive quite such solid satisfaction from the third movement it may be that the performance was not of equal merit throughout owing to its greater technical difficulties.  But, as a whole, the rendering was a thoroughly praiseworthy one, and the vigilant direction of Dr. A. Herbert Brewer [4] here, and indeed elsewhere during the afternoon, secured the best effects from the forces under his command.
Mr. Herbert Howells is a local composer, who already has considerable achievement to his credit, and of whom a good deal more will be heard in the near future, probably. His ‘Puck’s Minuet’ for small orchestra, which has now received its first local performance, was ‘tried out’ by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall on Tuesday; and it not only pleased the Metropolitan audience so greatly that it had to be repeated, but it also won high approval from the ‘fit and few’ who sat in the seats, we will not sat of the scornful, but of the London Press representatives.
[A number of London reviews are assessed, which have been given in an earlier post]

In these days there is a feeling that British composers should be given a greater chance than they have had in the past; but Mr. Howells must be esteemed fortunate in having captured the London ear twice within a few days, as he has, first with his violin sonata [5] and now with the composition under notice. For ourselves, we can only say that we think the verdict which we have quoted is a correct and deserved one, and that the London critics have not over-rated the merits of the piece.
It was written, we learn from the programme, in October, 1917, and was designed expressly for this Society. It is a faëry fantasy which conjures up the mischievous, merry wanderer of the night and his gossamer-winged attendants, and in dimensions so trifling that it is gone like a midsummer night’s dream; it is all over in much less time than it took Puck to put a girdle round the earth – to be exact within four minutes by the clock. The listener is invited to form his own picture of the imaginary scene which the music represents, and it brought to mind that popular picture ‘A Piper of Dreams’ [6] in which a boy sits amid sylvan surroundings absorbed in the music he is making with his pipe and apparently unconscious of the elves which flit around him, and the ‘wee timorous beasties’ [7] which have been charmed from their accustomed haunts by the Orpheus-like strains. The applause which greeted the original and graceful trifle was genuine. The composer, who occupied a seat amongst the audience, was called to the platform to bow his acknowledgements and shook hands with the conductor and leader of the orchestra. Dr. Brewer said he was sure the audience would like to have the piece repeated. So we heard it again, and liked it eve better the second time.
Before and after the new orchestral piece came songs from Miss Megan Foster; pretty songs, prettily sung – and acted may we say?  The young vocalist – a daughter as one could see of that favourite baritone vocalist, Mr. Ivor Foster – has a delightfully fresh and pure soprano voice and beautifully clear enunciation.
The songs were ‘Se tu m’ami’ (Pergolesi), ‘Le Violette’ (Scarlatti), ‘Sing Away’ (A. Herbert Brewer), ‘A Fairy went a-marketing’ (A.M. Goodhart), and two Irish folk songs ‘I will walk in my love’  and ‘I know where I’m goin’’ (arranged by Herbert Hughes); and as an encore, the extremely clever rendering of Teresa del Riego’s [8] ‘Shadow March’, and ‘Chanton les amours de Jean’ from a book by Weckerlin of XVIIIth century Bergerettes. [9]
As his violin solo Mr. W.H. Reed selected ‘Habanera’ (Saraste) probably written by the Spanish virtuoso to display his own mastery of his instrument. The popular leader and instructor of the Society made light work of any difficulties which the composition possesses and, in response to the enthusiastic demand for more, and Dr. Brewer’s request, added his own ‘Slumber Song’, which was heard with no less acceptance.
The Society put on an excellent finale to an afternoon’s fine work with Saint-Saëns’ Symphonic Poem, ‘Danse Macabre,’ an ingenious and interesting composition, eloquent of the gruesome subject which inspired it – ‘Death plays at midnight a dance for his pleasure.’ Death ends all things; and so ended a wholly delightful concert-an hour and a half’s unalloyed pleasure.
The Gloucester Saturday Journal 8 March, 1919

Notes:
[1] The annual concert of the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society was held on Thursday 6 March 1919. 
[2] Megan Foster was born in 1898, the daughter of the baritone and teacher, Ivor Foster (1870-1959). She was a highly regarded soprano. She died in 1987.
[3] William Henry Reed (1876-1942) was an English conductor, violinist and composer.  Best known for his book on Sir Edward Elgar: Elgar as I Knew Him (1936). Reed composed much music, including a Symphony for strings, a Violin Concerto, five string quartets and much else.
[4] Sir Herbert Brewer was born in Gloucester in 1865. He was an organist, conductor and composer.  After beginning life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral he held posts in the organ loft of churches in Gloucester, Oxford, Coventry and then Bristol Cathedral.  In 1896 he became organist at Gloucester Cathedral. Later, he conducted the Three Choirs Festival when in that city. He was also director of music at the Gloucester Orchestral Society. Brewer’s musical output included cantatas, oratorios, anthems, organ music, a few piano solos and lighter music for choral societies and orchestras. He was knighted in 1926 and died two years later in the city of his birth.
[5] The work referred to is the Violin Sonata No.2 in E flat major op.26 which was composed around 1907. It is in three movements: 1. Allegro moderato, 2. Quasi lento and 3. Lento-Allegro moderato. It was first performed at the Wigmore Hall, London on 17 February 1919 with Sybil Eaton (violin) and Harold Samuel. The work was subsequently discarded Howells. However it was recorded on Hyperion in 1993.  
[6] ‘A Piper of Dreams’ was a well-regarded painting by Estella (Louisa Michaela) Canziani (1887-1964), a British portrait and landscape painter, an interior decorator and a travel writer and folklorist.
[7] ‘Wee timorous beasties’ was presumably a mis-quotation from Robert Burns well-known poem To a Mouse ‘Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie!’
 [8] Teresa Clotilde del Riego, later Teresa Leadbitter (1876-1968) was an English violinist, pianist, singer and composer of Spanish ancestry. The song ‘Shadow March’ was a setting of a text by Robert Louis Stevenson from his A Child’s Garden of Verses.
[9] The  ‘Bergerettes’, which were ‘rustic’ songs of a shepherdess dating from the 18th century  were ‘arranged’ by J.B. Weckerlin (1821-1910) and were published in 1913.




Thursday, 23 April 2015

Malcolm Lipkin: From Across La Manche

It is great news that Malcolm Lipkin’s (b.1932) Symphonies have been released on Lyrita Records. Until I see the liner notes of the new CD I cannot be sure of the exact chronology and dates of these three works. Seemingly, they were composed and revised over a thirty year period with the Sinfoni di Roma having been begin in 1958 appearing in 1965, the second, subtitled The Pursuit dating from 1975-79  and the final symphony ‘Sun’ being written between 1979-86.  Based on some recordings of performances of the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies uploaded to YouTube it promises to be an exciting release.
In 1998 Lipkin produced his Suite: From Across La Manche. It was commissioned by the Primavera Chamber Orchestra.  This ensemble was formed in 1986 by their founder and artistic director Paul Manley. There was a definite intention of bringing ‘joie de vivre’ associated with the Italian word for ‘spring’ into their performances.  Their repertoire is wide-ranging and includes Moeran, Debussy, Mendelssohn and Ibert. New works have included commissions from Paul Patterson, Patrick Gowers, Gavin Bryars, Philip Glass as well as Malcolm Lipkin.
From Across La Manche has three contrasting movements: Overture, Ballade and Dance-finale. It lasts for just over quarter of an hour.
The Overture is a powerful and vibrant piece of music that is not really ‘light’ or ‘miniature’ in character, but has considerable rhythmical diversity. The sound world of this music is possibly Shostakovich, however one reviewer has suggested the feel of a Hitchcock movie. The Ballade is written in an arch form and is less frenetic and disturbing than the preceding movement. This is reflective and often introverted music with a certain degree of intensity in the middle section. I wondered if there is not a touch of Mahler here.  The liner notes for the Naxos recording of this work point out that the Dance-Finale contains a bar of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (spring) and uses the rhythm of the Polish Mazurka to provide the basic material for this movement. Bartok’s string quartets also seem to have a place in this finale. Perhaps the composer opted to use different strands of European musical history to define this ‘celebration of Europe?’ From Across La Manche was seemingly first heard ‘across the channel’ in the north of France. It is an excellent example of English string writing and should be in the ‘popular’ repertoire
This exciting and technically challenging work is available on English String Miniatures Volume 6: NAXOS 8.8557753. Gavin Sutherland conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 3 The Press Reviews

by Arthur Rackham
The following three reviews are of the first performance of Herbert Howells’ Puck’s Minuet which was given at the Queen’s Hall London on the evening of Tuesday, 4 March 1919. The concert included Hector Berlioz’s Overture: Benvenuto Cellini, Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, op.53, Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A minor (K.219) and W.H. Reed’s (1876-1942) Caprice: ‘Will o’ the Wisp’.

‘Miss Murray Lambert [1], who played with the London Symphony Orchestra under Mr. Hamilton Harty last night, gave a fair account of Mozart’s Concerto in A and Dvorak’s opus 53, but these did not quite come up to the expectations which have been formed of her playing. She has rather a thin tone for a concerto, and not quite a broad enough conception of either work to maintain the interest; neither was the intonation as clean as it should have been. At the same time one was grateful for some exceedingly beautiful bits of cantilena and as good deal of dainty phrasing, most welcome when it could be heard.
W.H. Reed’s [2] Caprice ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ has some uncomfortable basses, like Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini played at the beginning of the concert, and the harmonies tie themselves up in some funny knots; but he has an instinct for what will sound in an orchestra.
Herbert Howells, in his Puck’s Minuet (new) has much more than that. He writes for strings, soli and ripieni, [3] small wind, piano and percussion (no brass), and it is all as clear as a summer sky and as light as a feather. What is much more, it is all balanced music, making each point with a demure precision, but never insisting too much on it, and then off in a twinkling to the next one. He has a true instinct for the moment of repose which brings the agitation of his thinly written parts into focus. The work was repeated, and it will bear a good deal more repetition’.
The Times 5 March 1919
Notes:
[1] I have been unable to ascertain dates for the British violinist, Miss Murray Lambert.
[2] William Henry Reed (1876-1942) was an English conductor, violinist and composer.  Best known for his book on Sir Edward Elgar: Elgar as I Knew Him (1936). Reed composed much music, including a Symphony for strings, a Violin Concerto, five string quartets and much else.
[3] Ripieni are the string players other than the soloists. Typically used in the context of a Concerto Grosso.

‘Like all the work of this, one of the youngest British composers, it (Puck’s Minuet) is marked by a definite originality as distinct from successful imitation of a foreign idiom. There is strong poetic feeling in this little piece, all of it expressed in musical terms the average listener can understand. This being so its appeal was instantaneous, and it was re-demanded.’
The Morning Post 5 March 1919

‘Mr Howells shows what fancy and taste combined can do to give fresh life to old forms without distorting them, and the daintily-scored trifle made so happy an impression that Mr. Hamilton Harty had to repeat it. We are sure to hear it again.’
The Daily Telegraph 5 March 1919

A review of a later concert was submitted to the Christian Science Monitor by the British composer and music critic Marion M. Scott (1857-1953)
Three outstanding works were heard at the 25 September 1919 Promenade Concert. The American composer Henry Hadley’s The Culprit Fay, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with Leonard Borwick (1868-1925) as soloist. Other works presented in this wide ranging concert included Weber’s Overture: Der Freischütz, the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3, Sibelius’ Valse Triste, an aria (My friends, take heed of me) from Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades as arranged by Henry Wood, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, songs by Eric Coates, Samuel Liddle and Maude Valérie White. The concert concluded with Edward Elgar’s Three Bavarian Dances.

‘…Puck’s Minuet by Herbert Howells belongs to a different order of programme music, and can be followed irrespective of its literary basis. The note upon it written by its composer for the analytical programme, gives a clear idea of the work that it deserves quotation: This minuet –one of two pieces composed in October, 1917, and was designed expressly for the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society. Though written to an imaginary scene, it little matters what particular picture is in the listener’s mind, so there be a picture. It would seem, however, that airy Puck takes strange and ill-assorted companions for the dance – perhaps a Falstaff among them.’
Out of this score as delicate as moonlight, full of dainty rhythms and deliciously merry. It was well played under Sir Henry Wood; the composer who was to have conducted, being unavoidably absent.’
Marion M. Scott: Christian Science Monitor 1 November 1919 (with thanks to Pamela Blevins, author of Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty, Boydell & Brewer, 2008)

Friday, 17 April 2015

Gustav Holst: Nunc Dimittis for eight part choir

This year is the centenary of Gustav Holst’s beautiful ‘Nunc Dimittis’ (H127). This work was composed at the request of the then Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, Richard Terry (1864-1938). It was first performed on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1915 and then promptly forgotten.  According to Imogen Holst (Holst, 1974) the original holograph had been lost, however there was a part-autograph score which enabled her to reconstruct the work. It was given its first modern performance by the BBC Northern Singers under Stephen Wilkinson on Tuesday 11 June 1974 during the Aldeburgh Festival in Framlington Church. Other works at this concert included music choral and organ music by Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd. Holst’s music featured the traditional ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’ from the Six Choral Folksongs (H136), ‘Sing me the Men’ (H160), Ave Maria (H49) and The Evening Watch (H159). Edward Greenfield reviewing this concert in the Musical Times (August 1974) considered that ‘…as a reaction against The Planets (which was occupying him at the time) Holst's inspiration was sweetly Elizabethan, with an exhilarating bell-like Gloria.’ The work was published by Novello in 1979.

The words of this liturgical piece are in Latin rather than the well-known Thomas Cranmer translation from The Book of Common Prayer. This reflects it use for the late-night service Compline in the Roman Catholic Book of Hours.

Latin Text of Nunc Dimittis:
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.

English Translation of Nunc Dimittis (Book of Common Prayer)
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

The interesting feature of Holst’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’ is the dichotomy of styles that the composer has utilised. Michael Short (Short, 1990) has noted how the work ‘begins with a typically Holstian build-up of intervals, producing a sustained resonant chord…’ [C minor 13th]. However, the style then changes to one of pure Renaissance with traditional chordal, unison and contrapuntal passages. There is an antiphonal exchange between male and female voices. This surely reflects the composer’s deep attachment to the music of William Byrd, John Sheppard and the Italian, Palestrina. A.E.F. Dickinson (Dickinson, 1995) has stated that this short liturgical work ‘predated Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor and reflects a similar interest in Renaissance polyphony.’  However Dickinson feels that it is ultimately too close to its models ‘for comfort’. The setting is for eight-part chorus.
If I heard Holst’s Nunc Dimittis ‘blind’ I would not probably not attribute it to him. There is little to suggest 20th century Barnes or Hammersmith - but a lot of influence from Palestrina and the Elizabethans.
Gustav Holst’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’ has received many recordings since 1974. It is available on YouTube in a beautiful meditative version sing by Exeter Cathedral Choir.

Bibliography:
Dickinson, A.E.F., Holst’s Music: A Guide, (Thames Publishing, London 1995)
Holst, Imogen, A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music, (Faber Music Limited, London, 1974)
Short, Michael, Gustav Holst: The Man and his Music, (Oxford, OUP, 1990)






Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 2 The Record Reviews

Puck’s Minuet had been released on Decca K522 in 1930 with an unidentified orchestra conducted by Julian Clifford. This record was reviewed by W.R.Anderson.  in the July 1930 edition of The Gramphone. ‘Howells has said of his Minuet…that  ‘though written to an imaginary scene, it matters little what particular picture be in the listener’s mind…It would seem, however, that airy Puck takes strange and ill-assorted companions for the dance – perhaps a Falstaff among them.’ The reviewer concludes by noting that it one of the prettiest, most charming pieces for small orchestra, clearly and suavely recorded.’ The record also featured Scarlatti-Tomassni’s The Good Humoured Ladies

I also found a reference to an even earlier recording of Puck’s Minuet dating from 1925. The Gramophone (July 1925) gives a brief review of the 10” 78rpm record issued by Vocalion on X.9571 featuring the Aeolian Orchestra. The Howells piece was conducted by Stanley Chapple and the second side consisted of Jarnefelt’s Berceuse conducted by Percy Fletcher.  The reviewer P.P. notes that the latter is ‘quite an agreeable little piece’ but was ‘completely eclipsed by the very individual Minuet…’ He concludes by suggesting Howells has ‘most successfully achieved a genuine “Puckish” atmosphere and the piquancy of the orchestration is most admirably reproduced in the record.’ 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 1

by Arthur Rackham
I was delighted to hear for the first time Herbert Howell’s Puck’s Minuet from the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, op.20 which has recently been released by Dutton Epoch. (CDLX 7317) The CD also includes a realisation of Howell’s Cello Concerto. I have wanted to hear the Minuet ever since purchasing the Lyrita recording of the Sir Adrian Boult conducting Merry Eye which is the second of the two pieces.
Puck’s Minuet was completed in November 1919 as a commission for the amateur Gloucester Orchestral Society conducted by Sir Herbert Brewer, who was organist of the Cathedral. The work is dedicated to his (Brewer's) daughter, Eileen Brewer.
Paul Spicer has noted that Howells wrote the entire piece, in full score, in a three-hour ‘sitting’ at Reading Station whilst waiting on his train to Gloucester. However, in a diary entry quoted in Palmer (Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration, 1995) Howells states that it was ‘composed in a public reading-room, in 1917!’ The ‘Reading/reading’ words may have caused confusion or false memory.
Christopher Palmer notes the work’s popularity just after the end of the Great War.  He tells how the manuscript reposed in the offices of the publisher Messrs Goodwin and Tabb. Seemingly it was published before it was first heard. Sir Hamilton Harty ‘chanced upon it’ and decided to take it up, hence its popularity. The work received its first performance at the Queen’s Hall, London on 4 March 1919 with Harty conducting elements of the London Symphony Orchestra. The work was given an immediate encore.  Two days later it was performed in Gloucester by the Gloucester Orchestral Society
Puck’s Minuet has an unusual scoring – two flutes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, timpani, percussion, piano, three solo violins and strings.  Palmer notes that this was ‘determined by the constitution of Brewer’s orchestra’.  Yet Howells manages to use these forces to create ‘subtly individual coloration’ resulting in a work that displays ‘freshness and piquancy.’
The composer was unable to attend due to ill health, but eagerly awaited the reviews of the concert. He wrote ‘I had ‘Puck’ in mind all day, thinking of how it would fare at the Queen’s Hall where Hamilton Harty would be playing it tonight with the London Symphony Orchestra, at Miss Murray Lambert’s recital (violin). To know its fate meant waiting till tomorrow morning.’ However, his wait was not to be disappointed: ‘And on this first day of Lent I learnt from the Daily Telegraph and the Times and all the other press, how the little Puck had so delighted the people gathered at the Queen’s Hall that it had to be repeated immediately…a most unusual occurrence…And the critics always follow the crowd. So I had a headline in the Times, and all the lesser fry were gracious.’
The work was heard at Bournemouth four times and at the ‘Proms’ on eight occasions.

I will post some reviews of the concert and early recordings of Puck’s Minuet on subsequent posts. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Rawsthorne, Fricker and Berkeley on Pye Golden Guinea

Many years ago (probably around 1972) I bought the Pye Golden Guinea album of music by Alan Rawsthorne, Peter Racine Fricker and Lennox Berkeley. In each case it was the first piece of music that I had consciously heard by any of these three composers. It was very much an ‘on spec’ purchase as I could not have conjectured what these works would have sounded like. I guess that it was simply because I clocked it was 20th century British music that I made the purchase. It may have seemed a little more adventurous than the LPs I had been buying around that time which had included Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony.
The three works on this LP were Rawsthorne’s Concerto for string orchestra (1949), Fricker’s Prelude, Elegy and Finale (1949) and Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings (1939).

The album was originally issued in 1965. It was played by the Little Orchestra of London under the baton of Leslie Jones.  At this time, Jones was concentrating on Haydn with a considerable number of albums dedicated to his symphonies.
Edward Greenfield, writing in August 1965 edition of The Gramophone wrote of this LP that it was a ‘fine record of British string music to follow up the highly successful Haydn issues from this conductor and orchestra’. He concluded his general review by noting that ‘the playing on this record…is passionate and convincing...more than half the battle if a record of modern music is to do its work.’

My copy of the album was the stereo one on GSGC-14042: the monaural was released on GSCG-4042. I found an advert for the album in the July 1970 edition of the Gramophone so I assume that it must have been reissued at some point. John Dressler (Rawsthorne Bio-bibliography, 2004) notes that the Rawsthorne Concerto was reissued in 1997 on CD although I cannot find any other reference to this release.
Interestingly Michael Herman on MusicWeb’s ‘British Orchestral Music’ discography notes that Rawsthorne’s Concerto was issued on a Pye Collector label (GSGC-7060) also in 1965. This was coupled with the same composer’s Piano Quintet and Cello Sonata. I assume it is the same recording. It would appear that the Fricker and the Berkeley have not been reissued.
I immediately related to Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade, which has remained a favourite ever since. A few years later I purchased the Lyrita version (SRCS 69) of this work with the composer conducting and regarded this version as definitive.  I recall being impressed with the Rawsthorne Concerto but was largely unmoved by the Fricker. In recent months I have come to revise this opinion. Listeners are fortunate in having a YouTube video of this recording of the Prelude, Elegy and Finale.  I will discuss this work in a subsequent post, but meanwhile I suggest that anyone interested should listen to this piece while they can. 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Jottings on Eric Fogg’s Tone Poem Sea Sheen

My first introduction to Eric Fogg was in a second hand bookshop in Llandudno. It was back in the early nineteen-seventies. Mr. David Hughes had what amounted to a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books and music in his large rambling shop. I recall that much of the sheet-music was kept in a cupboard towards the rear of the premises. There must have been literally tons of old scores, Victorian parlour songs, Novello choral editions, anthems, organ pieces - and Sea-Sheen. I cannot recall how much I paid for it, but it was probably about 10p. It was the cover that attracted me: I guess that I had just been introduced to Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony and probably considered that any piece by an Englishman about the ‘sea’ must be of interest and importance.
When I returned home from my holiday I suppose I must have played through the work on the piano. I cannot have played it well, for it is actually quite difficult – I would guess about Grade 7. Yet I felt that there was musical worth here: I was reminded of both Delius and Debussy. One of the chords stuck firmly in my mind and I cribbed it for an Intrada for organ which I was writing at that time! Sea Sheen was one of those many works that I hoped would be recorded, but I doubted if I would ever hear it.  It was eventually forgotten about, filed in the loft and life moved on.

I recently (2007) wrote an article about Eric Fogg’s admirable Bassoon Concerto and as a part of the research for this I mugged up on the precious few written articles about the composer. I had not realised that Fogg was a Mancunian: neither had I known that he had been an associate of Walter Carroll. Now Carroll is a name that is well known amongst pianists for his excellent ‘teaching’ material. Furthermore he was involved with music making in Manchester – both amateur and professional. And then I recalled that my grandfather had known Carroll between the wars.  So there was a (vague) family connection. It certainly sparked my interest in the music of the largely forgotten Eric Fogg.
Finally I read Lewis Foreman’s article ‘Fogg out of the Mists…’  published in the Manchester Sounds journal where he writes:- “It is unfortunate that so many of Fogg’s orchestral works seem to be lost, but his facility in orchestral writing contributed to the survival of one or two pieces which were occasionally heard on BBC radio programmes of lighter music until quite recently and which, if not great music, are charming and worthy of revival;  among these may be singled out the short tone poem Sea Sheen.” 

Eric Fogg was born in Manchester in 1903. He served as a boy chorister at the Cathedral after which he entered the organ loft of St John’s, Deansgate (now demolished). His first formal music lessons were with his father, Charles H. Fogg – who was organist to the Hallé Orchestra.  After this valuable instruction he studied with Granville Bantock in Birmingham.  As a teenager Fogg was precocious and prolific: he had written his Op. 57 before turning eighteen. His first significant achievement was in 1919 when he won the Cobbett prize with his Dance Fantasy for Piano and Strings. By his 21st birthday, Fogg was working for BBC Radio in Manchester- initially as a pianist (Keyboard Kitty!) and latterly as one of the ‘uncles’ of Children’s Hour. He involved himself with musical enterprises at all levels in that city – both amateur and professional. Latterly he succeeded Archie Camden, the bassoonist (to whom he dedicated his Bassoon Concerto) as the conductor of the Manchester Schoolchildren’s Orchestra.
In 1934 Fogg moved to London to take up a post as director of the BBC Empire Orchestra. Five years later he was killed by a London Underground train at Waterloo tube station. He was on his way to Brighton where he was to marry for a second time: an open verdict was returned.

Fogg’s catalogue was considerable and includes works for orchestra, the stage and chamber music. Unfortunately with few recordings and even less opportunities to hear his music in the concert hall it is hard to evaluate his musical style. His early works were influenced by Stravinsky whilst his later pieces owe more to Granville Bantock and Richard Strauss and William Walton.  Lewis Foreman writes that Fogg’s music was received with a degree of hostility. On the one hand critics felt that was too ‘modernistic’ and on the other that he did not wholeheartedly encompass ‘modernism.’ He could not win.
Virtually none of Eric Fogg’s music is played today. There was a revival of his major choral work The Seasons (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Leeds Choral Society, 25th March 2006) which was successful. The Bassoon Concerto is in its own way a minor revelation, yet considering the paucity of concerted works for this instrument it has not become a regular feature in the concert hall.

An interesting note appears in the Musical Times for 1 May 1920.  The author highlights the achievements of the Manchester School of Dramatics and wonders when the city will match this in music. He mentions a number of composers including Messrs. Edmondstone Duncan, Agate, Isaacs, Foulds, Baynton-Power… and Eric Fogg.  He notes that on the 30 March of that year the British Music Society had organized a meeting which was addressed by Mr. Leigh Henry. The topic of this lecture was the musical compositions of the seventeen year old Eric Fogg: during the meeting some twenty-five of the young composer’s works were given! The most successful number performed was the Phantasy for cello and piano (a work surely ripe for revival). Even more pertinent was a concert given some four nights later by the Sunday League where Sea-Sheen (piano version) was heard along with a Ballade in C# minor by Baynton-Power.

Sea Sheen may not be a major work within the context of British music, yet there is an attractiveness about it that transcends any debate on its inherent ‘worth.’ The first question to address is the classification of the work. Is it ‘light’ music or was it a genuine attempt to write a significant tone poem? Historically there is little to go on. At present, so little information is available on Fogg that it is not possible to construct any kind of ‘compositional history.’ Furthermore we do not understand how he regarded this work within his oeuvre.  Yet we do know that Sea-Sheen was an early composition – it was written before his study with Bantock. It is possible that the present work is the same as the Idyll heard at Bournemouth on 24 March 1919.  As such it was composed when Fogg was sixteen or seventeen years old.

The musical score has survived as a piano-conductor edition along with orchestral parts. This suggests that is was seen as repertoire for the smaller, provincial orchestras – such as at Hastings or Llandudno. This could conjure the image of Sea Sheen being played alongside such works as Kettelbey’s In a Persian Market or maybe selections from Edward German’s Merrie England. It would appear to preclude the work from the more exalted concerts halls and more serious repertoire. However, two notices in the Musical Times show that Sea-Sheen was played in lofty company.  A concert given in Harrogate on 22 June 1922 included Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto in F and Tchaikovsky’s Overture on the Danish National Anthem.  Concertgoers at a special evening concert in Bath on 30 Jan 1932 heard it performed with Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Howell’s Procession and Stravinsky’s Second Miniature Suite. Hardly selections from the shows!

The full title of the work is Sea-Sheen: An Idyll. The score is dedicated to a certain Arthur Sadler and carries the first four lines of a poem by John Wilson, also known as Christopher North:-
“It is the midnight hour – the beauteous sea
Calm as the cloudless heaven, the heaven discloses,
While many a sparkling star in quiet glee,
Far down within the watery sky reposes.”

The tone poem is effectively a meditation on these lines. Naturally, the composer does not try to match the music to the words in every way. It is mood music- in fact it is fair to say that in a number of passages Fogg has written in an ‘impressionistic’ style. The work opens with a short undulating phrase before the main ‘sea’ theme makes its first appearance. It is quite a broad tune but without any pretension to ‘a limitless heaving breast.’ Yet it is immediately answered by a gorgeous phrase which will largely dominate the work: it is both romantic and tender in its flowing contour. This is followed by a third critical element of this piece – the impressionistic misty bridge passage. This surely has Delius or Debussy as its model. Then the piece comes to an effective stop. Fogg wisely repeats this first section virtually unchanged before changing the mood to the central ‘meno mosso’ music. This is slightly more intense than the opening material and suggests movement as opposed to stillness; change as opposed to rest. Interestingly Fogg balances this phrase with a figure that well suggests seabirds- without being naively descriptive. This section does not really climax: it just gently swells. Soon the music enters a second interlude before a recapitulation of the opening theme. All the elements are present: the sea itself, the romance and the impressionistic touches. The work comes to a full close with a swirl of arpeggios on the harp.

Sea-Sheen demands our attention for a number of reasons. Firstly it is an attractive example of a miniature tone poem.  Fogg manages to balance the poetic inspiration of this music with a directness of expression. Secondly, the scoring is quite exquisite. It is hard to imagine that this subtle impressionistic work issued from the mind and pen of what nowadays would be called a teenager or ‘yoof.’ Thirdly, every note counts: there is clarity in both the texture and in the instrumentation that is impressive. Fourthly, Fogg uses an economy of material, yet does not struggle to maintain interest. And lastly the music never sinks into cliché or crass sentiment.
It is easy to play ‘spot the influence’ with Sea-Sheen – yet it is a pointless exercise. It is perfectly reasonable that a composer creating ‘sea music’ will nod towards Claude Debussy, Frederick Delius or even Frank Bridge. Yet this is not a pastiche work: Fogg uses his models with skill and invention and reserve.

The final test of any piece of music is: Does it move the listener? Now unless I am unusual, it certainly does. It is a near-perfect ‘tone picture’ of the ocean at night. And for my money it is an English sea- very possibly Morecambe Bay?

The work deserves to be in the repertoire and have more than just an occasional airing on the radio. The only available recording on Dutton does justice to the composer’s intention. The mood of Sea-Sheen is very different to Fogg’s Bassoon Concerto which was composed in 1930. That work is more in the style of Walton than Delius. Yet both works are consistent and show the composer as a consummate craftsman. Finally, included on the above mentioned CD is the short orchestral evocation Merok – which is a musical picture of a tiny village in Norway. It was written some ten years after Sea-Sheen and is an equally perfect miniature.
Certainly Eric Fogg was a great loss to the musical world of Manchester in particular and British Music in general. Who is to know what heights he would have scaled if he had not had such a tragic end?

Bibliography
Lewis Foreman: Fogg out of the Mists…’ Music & Musicians xxxviii/1 (1989-90) September, pp8-10: Eric Fogg 1903-1939 Manchester Sounds Volume 4 2003/2004 pp121-133.
Articles in Grove, The Times and the Musical Times
CD Programme notes DUTTON CDLX 7196 [Lewis Foreman 2007]

Discography
Orchestral Works Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Sea Sheen: an idyll (1920) Merok (1929) Eric CHISHOLM (1904-1965) Symphony No. 2 ‘Ossian’ (1939) Trevor HOLD (1939-2004) The Unreturning Spring – a song cycle to poems by James Farrar. Op.3 (1961-63) BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates, Gavin Sutherland and Vernon Handley. DUTTON CDLX 7196

English Bassoon Concertos: Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Bassoon Concerto (1930) John ADDISON (1920-1998) Bassoon Concertino (1998) Peter HOPE (b.1930) Bassoon Concertino (2000) Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b.1923) Summer Music (1985) Graham Salvage, bassoon with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland (Butterworth conducted by composer) ASV CD WHL 2132
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this article was first published. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Erik Chisholm: Piano Music Volumes 1-4 (Part 2)

I recently discovered that I had never uploaded my review of Erik Chisholm’s Complete Piano Music Volumes 1 to 4 onto my blog. This was originally published on MusicWeb International in 2009. Since then the remaining volumes of the cycle (5, 6, &7) have been issued, John Purser’s biography of the composer has been published and changes to the Chisholm website have been made. So I present a slightly revised version of that review. I have not changed my view on this music in the intervening six or so years. This is the second of two posts.

The first of the two Sonatas presented on these discs does not have a Scottish theme, but was inspired by a landscape no less Celtic- that of Cornwall.  The Sonata was written around 1926 and was composed after a holiday with his piano teacher Lev Pouishnoff in a cottage in the north of the county. There is no doubt that this is a late romantic work – that owes more to Rachmaninov, than to his teacher, who is reputed to have hated the work.  Pouishnoff felt that it was not in tune with the ‘modernism’ of the day. Furthermore he did not approve of, what to him, were naïve subtitles to each movement: The Wet Scythes, Blown Spume, Chin and Tongue Waggle and With Clogs On.
To take an example: the last movement is a little bit of a misnomer. This is no Percy Grainger concert show stopper: this is not Handel walking down the Strand – but is really a huge rhapsody very much in Chisholm’s own extravagant style.
John Purser is correct in suggesting that we regard this work as ‘a youthful show-piece rather than a major work...’ and notes that ‘The work is of interest as a kind of compositional groundwork for later developments of Scottish traditional material-notably in the tremendous Sonata in A minor.’  Its only fault is being a little too massive for its own good, and maybe there is a lack of light and shade and technical contrast?
I enjoyed this work, in spite of it not being fully in the Chisholm style. But surely, this work has ‘moments of beauty and mystery’ that raise it above the mundane.  It may not be a masterpiece – yet it deserves its place as a part of this exploration of Chisholm’s music. And one last thought, the composer himself regarded the work well- he re-worked two of its movements in his First Symphony –surely another candidate for revival?

An integral part of these four CDs, and I suspect subsequent releases too, are the works which are by and large arrangements of Scottish tunes. For example, there are ten pieces from the 24 Preludes from the True Edge of the Great World, which refer to the Hebrides. John Purser sums up these preludes by pointing out that they are much more than ‘simple settings of traditional melodies. As the title ‘Preludes’ implies, they are more in the form of meditations or improvisations on some aspect of a melody which may only appear in full once in the whole piece.’  All these pieces have colourful titles, such as Sea Sorrow, The Sheiling and Sea Tangle.  I would suggest that the listener play Track 9 Rudha Ba-eon to get flavour of this cycle of Preludes. This is mood-music and manages to create a dreamlike impression of a seascape on the Isles at Edge of the World.  Interestingly some nine of these Preludes were orchestrated by the composer.

As an excellent example of the numerous collections of Scottish tunes I want to consider the The Scottish Airs for Children which are based on Patrick MacDonald’s A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs. However, there is a difficulty here. How does a listener approach some 25 pieces – the shortest being some twenty one seconds long, the longest being just over two minutes. I guess that one could just let them wash over you whilst staring out the window or enjoying a glass of Auchentoshan.  But that would be to do these well-crafted pieces a disservice. I think that there is a need for a little effort on the listener’s part here. I guess that I would suggest a study of the programme notes – reading the brief descriptions of each piece and then deciding to listen to half a dozen. I give one example – my favourite. This is No. 7 based on the tune Loch Bhraoin, or Loch Broom to non-Gaelic speakers! Purser writes that this loch, which is ‘on the north-west coast of Scotland, [is] here coloured with chromatic harmonies, as seen through a rainbow prism’.
Furthermore it is useful to note the raison d' être of these pieces.  They were dedicated ‘For the Children’ and therefore represent a gift to his three daughters.  It is also important thing to recall is that he had the intention of publishing these pieces in three graded volumes.  John Purser notes that these ‘are settings of great beauty, their sensitivities enhanced rather than diminished by the directness and simplicity of treatment required for children.’ I agree with him that these are superb pieces and that their neglect is incomprehensible. I hope that it will soon be possible to purchase the sheet music for these delightful and deserving pieces.

Other collections of ‘folk-music’ include the Airs from the Patrick MacDonald Collection which was published in 1784.  Chisholm had found a copy of this work as a boy and it remained with him throughout his life.  He also used this book as a source for the Petite Suite.  Once again these are all short pieces that need to be explored slowly rather than just listened to from end to end.
And finally, there are a number of Piobaireachd which are effectively bagpipe tunes which are integrated into a fully twentieth-century pianistic language.  These tunes are gathered from traditional sources and may well be battle songs, songs of welcome and laments. All these arrangements, realisations, re-workings and inventions are worthy of our attention, but I must confess that they need to be explored in bite-size chunks, else I think the effect would pall and the listener would loose a lot of the charm, the wit and sheer magic of the music. It would be hard to listen to all Rachmaninov’s Preludes at one sitting. Chisholm's Piobaireachd need similar attention.

Lastly I want to consider the Sonata in A ‘An Riobain Dearg’ (The Red Ribbon) which was composed in 1939. It is important to realise that this present version is an abridged edition of this work that was made by Murray McLachlan.   It is not stated in the liner notes as to whether these are the pianists suggestions or whether they are based on suggested cuts in the score by Chisholm. However, the unabridged version is available on DRD 0219, so a comparison can made. I have not heard this disc.
For me, this Sonata is my abiding memory from all the works on these CDs. This is an undoubted masterpiece.

I understand that the work was never published and was lost for a number of years. As it stands, in this recording it is a massive work although the original was some six minutes longer. I guess that John Purser is not wrong in suggesting that ‘nothing like this extraordinary adventure in pianism has been penned before or since...’  He mentions the ‘extravagances of Sorabji’ and the ‘bravura textures of Busoni’ as possible comparisons. But this is to do the work a disservice. I remember the old story about Elvis Presley being asked who he sings like. He replied, “I don’t sing like no-one.” And this is surely the watch-word for this piece – there is nothing like it in the repertoire. This is a work that is largely derived from Scottish sources, but never lapses into a sentimental type of Brigadoon musical landscape.
The opening movement is based on a Piobaireachd which is a set of variations on an original bagpipe theme. Chisholm presents the tune in exact transcription at the start of the work.  This is a complex movement that owes little to the classical idea of theme and variations. It is a journey outwards – it does not return to the source, save with a few tentative reminiscences.
The scherzo is a stunning example of Chisholm's pianism – a driving irregular rhythm is maintained throughout the piece only being relived by quotations from another bagpipe tune - The Prince’s Salute. It is exhausting music to listen too – but totally satisfying.
The slow movement is a ‘lament.’ In fact, it commemorates the loss of the submarine Thetis which sank during her diving trials just before the outbreak of the Second World War. There were only four survivors out of a crew of 103 men.  This is a ‘watery’ piece that sometimes tips it hat to Debussy – especially with Chisholm’s use of the whole-tone scale. It is a heart-achingly beautiful piece of music. John Purser suggests that it closes with a sense of pity rather than consolation: it sums up a deep and tragic movement.
Yet all this sadness is put to flight with an extrovert and highly dramatic ‘allegro moderato’. In this movement tunes just seem to tumble over each other. It is the effusions of a confident man who, to quote the liner notes, celebrates ‘Chisholm as a Scot, Chisholm as a composer and Chisholm as a virtuoso pianist.’ But one last addition to this list – lest we exaggerate the Scottish influence – this is music that stands its own ground in the corpus of European piano music from the Twentieth and any and every other century.

It is clear to see that Murray McLachlan had made an important contribution to the literature of British Music. He has decided to make, as Colin Scott-Sutherland notes, Chisholm’s music his own. And that is what was surely needed – a champion of this great catalogue of excellent but virtually unknown music. Moreover, McLachlan has been well-served by the fine recording made at Chetham’s School that presents this music with the highest sound quality. And finally the learned liner notes are a joy to read. In fact, they are absolutely necessary, due to the lack of information about and criticism of Chisholm’s music. John Purser certainly gives any listener a fine preview of his up illuminating and remarkable biography of the composer.
Lastly (in 2009) I look[ed] forward to hearing the subsequent CDs in this eye-opening cycle with great anticipation and enthusiasm. It is one of the musical discoveries and revelations of the Twenty-First century.

Track Listings:-
Volume 1
Straloch Suite (1933)
Scottish Airs for Children (c.1940s)
Sonata in A (1939) ‘An Riobain Dearg’ (A Red Ribbon)

Volume 2
Ten Preludes from 24 Preludes from the True Edge of the Great World (1943)
Airs from the Patrick MacDonald Collection (1951)
Petite Suite (1951)

Volume 3
Piobaireachd for solo piano (undated)
Sonatina No.1 (undated)
Sonatina No.2 (undated)
Two Piobaireachd Laments (undated)
Cornish Dance Sonata (c.1926)

Volume 4
Piobaireachd for solo piano (undated)
Sonatina No.3 (undated)
Cameos (1926)
Highland Sketches (mostly from the MacDonald Collection) (undated) Portraits (1924-1929)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
Dunelm Records DDV 24131, 24132, 24133 & 24134 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Erik Chisholm: Piano Music Volumes 1-4 (Part 1)

I recently discovered that I had never uploaded my review of Erik Chisholm’s Complete Piano Music Volumes 1 to 4 onto my blog. This was originally published on MusicWeb International in 2009. Since then the remaining volumes of the cycle (5, 6, &7) have been issued, John Purser’s biography of the composer has been published and changes to the Chisholm website have been made. So I present a slightly revised version of that review. I have not changed my view on this music in the intervening six or so years. I present it in two posts.

This is an all for nothing project. I can hardly imagine anyone wanting just a single CD of this collection of piano music. I know that I am pained at only having four of the projected seven volumes of this fascinating but virtually unknown music to review.
If I were to put my cards on the table and give a ‘heads up’ overview of my thoughts on this cycle it would be as follows: this is possibly one of the most important single contributions to British Piano Music alongside Bax, Ireland, Sorabji, Hoddinott and from my personal point of view, Cyril Scott. It is fair to say that the unknown-ness of this music will mean that it is a very long time before it takes its rightful place in the canons of British Piano Music. My prime concern is simply this – I fear that these CDs will not be bought by general listeners – they are hardly likely to be played on Classic FM, for example. So I guess the buying public will be those who know something of Chisholm’s music (a precious few, I imagine) or those lucky enough to have come under the influence of those ‘precious few’’ and have been introduced to this music.
One thing I must insist on saying before I move on with this review – and it is this. In spite of a number of ‘picturesque’ Scottish and Celtic titles of many of these works, Chisholm’s music is no crass ‘tartanry.’ This is not pastiche ‘highlan’ music that is meant to evoke a sentimental view of the land north of the border. And as a Scot, I have heard plenty of that kind. Chisholm’s art is obviously influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the result can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition in a trajectory from Schoenberg and Bartok.  A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – “He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.”

First of all a few biographical notes about Chisholm. I should preface my remarks by noting the excellent Website that is managed by his daughter, Morag.
Erik Chisholm was born in the Cathcart suburb of Glasgow on 4th January 1904. Apparently, he was a kind of ‘wunderkind’ who was composing music before he could read and also writing poems and ‘novels’ whilst still in junior school. He studied with Herbert Walton, the erstwhile organist at Glasgow Cathedral and Lev Pouishnoff, and then at the Scottish Academy of Music between 1918 and 1920.  After this, he toured the United States and Canada before returning to Edinburgh and studying under the great Sir Donald Tovey. He received his Doctor of Music from Edinburgh in 1934.  During this time he was also the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society which gave under his direction a number of first British performances, including Mozart’s Idomeneo, Berlioz’s The Trojan’s (still remembered by the older generation when I was a young man in the early 1970’s in Glasgow), Dvorak's Jakobin and Moonies’  Weird of Colbar.  Chisholm did seem to have a penchant for setting up groups and societies – but these were all means to an end for his enthusiasm for new music. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929; this was followed by the Barony Opera Society in 1936.
During the Second World War he was the conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was a director of ENSA in South East Asia.
After the war Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Capetown. Once again he was instrumental in promoting new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School.
Erik Chisholm died in Capetown on 8 June 1965, aged only 60 years.

Apart from his massive corpus of piano music, Chisholm’s works include an opera, based on The Canterbury Tales, two ballets, The Forsaken Merman and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, two symphonies, two piano concertos, and a Violin Concerto. There is a huge catalogue of other music, including tone poems, chamber pieces, songs and choral works.
Interestingly, the author of the Grove article suggests that ‘it was as an opera composer that he produced his best work: this is particularly evident in the trilogy Murder in Three Keys and in the three acts that constitute Canterbury Tales. The latter is arguably his best stage work and a good example of his dramatic flair.’
Yet for the majority of listeners and enthusiasts of British music the only work that is known is the fine Second Symphony ‘Ossian’ released by Dutton Records.

One fact makes this review rather tentative. There is the problem of chronology: a number of works on these CDs do not have dates of composition in the text and furthermore I was unable to find another source of a dating. The Chisholm WebPages do not yet show this information for every work.

In a top-line overview, it is fair to say that there appears to be two key divisions of Erik Chisholm’s piano music – those works with an obvious Scottish or at least Celtic influence. And secondly, there are works that appear to be more universal. For example, the Sonatinas and the Cameos. Although I believe that this is in many ways an ‘academic’ divide.  

It is important to note that Chisholm was the first ‘serous’ composer to devote time to the study of Highland bagpipe tunes known as Piobaireachd. This systematic study of these works has resulted in well over a hundred piano pieces based on these tunes.  William Saunders, writing in the Musical Times in 1932 suggests that these Piobaireachd are ‘curiously rhythmical works, with enormous potentialities for the expression of every phrase…of what to a Scottish Highlander must ever sound as the artistic manifestation of what he regards as the noblest of all emotional experiences.’

I feel that the best place to begin a consideration of Chisholm’s piano music may well be with the Straloch Suite. This work was completed in 1933 in a number of incarnations – including arrangements for full orchestra and for string orchestra. There is a somewhat convoluted compositional history, but the present Suite has three movements that are based on tunes from Robert Gordon of Straloch’s lute book of 1627.
The opening ‘grave’ of the first movement is a million miles away from Scottish music until the composer introduces a tune called ‘Ostende’ and makes contrapuntal and fugal play with it. There is a balance here between the serious and the humorous. The second movement is a working out of three tunes from the lute book – including an attractive love-song based on An thou wert my own thing. The last movement appears to nod to Bartok. However John Purser points out that the 'off beat' chords are actually in the original Straloch version.
The interesting thing about this Suite is that the material used by the composer does not overwhelm. It is obvious that he is using ‘Scottish’ tunes – but they do not detract from the logical and often quite involved structures and constructions that are f beholden to twentieth-century music. The listener need not concern themselves with identifying tunes – in fact I believe that this may detract from enjoyment of this piece.

Another good entry point to Chisholm’s piano music is the three Sonatinas.  In fact, he composed six examples of this genre: presumably the other three will be presented on succeeding CD issues. They are undated and were given a group title of E Praeterita, which means ‘From the Past’.  The melodic material used by Chisholm in these works is from mainland Europe rather than from the Highlands of Scotland. For example, the three movements of the First Sonatina are effectively contrapuntal variations on O Gloriosa Domina by the 16th century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez.  The first movement of the Second Sonatina is derived from a lute Fantasia by Luis de Milan.  The Third is slightly different being based on four 'ricercars'. The word ‘ricercare’ means ‘to research’ but is applied to musical forms that are largely contrapuntal and often academic in nature. However, in this case there is nothing dry and dusty about this music.  One last thought about these Sonatinas. Many pianists were brought up playing these ‘small sonatas’, such as those by Clementi and Kuhlau and are therefore associated with didactic music and perhaps are regarded as being ’easy’. It is best to see these short works in the terms of the Ravel and Ireland’s Sonatinas: there is nothing simple or technically naïve about this music. They are miniature masterpieces.

One of the most fascinating collections of pieces on these four CDs is the Cameos: Portraits.  These are amongst the earliest pieces presented here. They were published around 1926 but are only a selection from a greater number of Cameos that remain unpublished or in draft form.  Each of these pieces is given a picturesque title – for example the first is called A Jewel from the Sidereal Casket, the fourth, The Companion to Sirius and the penultimate is called The Sweating Infantry – which is based on some words from Walt Whitman.  These eight pieces are truly original, do not rely on any published melodies or tunes and exploit the piano to the full.  The sixth cameo is interesting. It is called the Procession of the Crabs. John Purser suggests that the image for this work may have come to Chisholm whilst on holiday at that playground of Glaswegians -Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde Estuary. This piece “marches determinedly, using [a] variety of harmonic density to help punctuate the rhythm”.
These eight pieces are entertaining, sophisticated and technically competent pieces that surely deserve their place in the repertoire.

Another work that does not involve ‘quoted’ Scottish tunes as such are the enigmatic Portraits. However, the influence of native music is never too far away – often presented in a distorted light, but revealing themselves to the careful listener.  These six pieces were written over a five year period between 1924 and 1929.  The first, an Epitaphe for “a little child who left this world just as soon as he had entered it” is absolutely full of despair. Chisholm fills this music with dissonances that resolve themselves into Debussy-like parallel triads.
The composer noted that the second Portrait, Melodie Chiaroscura, was ‘from some strangely foreign parts. Here Nature revels in colour. There are bright liquid blues tapering to an infinity of ether; scarlet towers bursting violently into blazes of…purple: yellow parts scored symmetrically with jet black parallels side by side with webs of high-pitched undulation in pink. There is no unity of colour...’ The listener can ignore the density of this text and just enjoy the impressionistic sounds that seem to unite the Far East, France and Scotland.
Porgy is quite short: it is based on a passage from Du Bose Heyward’s eponymous novel on which Gershwin based his great opera. The piece is dedicated to Hugh S. Roberton, the conductor of the celebrated Glasgow Orpheus Choir.  It is really a musical description of a procession of African-American ‘Repent ye saith the Lorders’ on their annual parade. It is a tremendous tour de force.
Agnes and the Maultasch is another bleak and quite dissonant piece that the composer instructs to be played ‘hauntingly’.  It is based on ‘fairy tale’ called ‘The Ugly Duchess’ which is full of death and ghosts.
Suss communes with Maimi would appear to be the last of the Portraits to be completed. It is dedicated to Lion Feuchtwanger who was the author of a novel called Jud Suss – published in English as ‘Power’. As a novel it was intended to expose the racist policies of the Nazis. The ‘plot’ of the music is really a meditation on Suss, in the form of a ghost. He is in prison and is a man ‘who has never yet felt an emotion except hardness of heart and hate is overwhelmed with tenderness and his house of cards crumples to the ground’. All because Suss has been visited by his beautiful daughter Maimi.   

The last Portrait is exactly that: A Portrait of a Fashionable Gentlewoman. This is another complex piece that explores two separate musical strands. Firstly there is the pastiche waltz and secondly the growing complexity of the musical language moves it far away from being simply a parody of contemporary salon music. It is a fine conclusion to a difficult but rewarding set of pieces.