Saturday, 29 August 2009

Erik Chisholm: Music for Piano, Volume 5

I have already given a thumbnail sketch of Erik Chisholm’s life and works in my review of the first four volumes of this cycle on MusicWeb International. Furthermore there is great deal of biographical information in the Chisholm Web pages. However, three things as the kirk minister once said, are useful to bear in mind. Firstly, Erik William Chisholm (1904-1965) is one of a group of British composers who have been unjustly neglected: he is often known as Scotland’s Forgotten Composer. Much of his music is inspired and informed by the Scottish folk-music heritage. Secondly his output of music was considerable, with a huge emphasis on the piano repertoire. And lastly, in spite of the fact of his nickname MacBartok, his music is original and quite often groundbreaking, without being novel or eccentric for its own sake.

This CD has to be explored slowly and methodically. There is far too much of interest to just play it from the first track to the last. I would suggest that a good place to begin is with the fine Harris Dance. Like much of Erik Chisholm’s music this piece is based on one of the North Highland Airs from A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs which were published by Patrick MacDonald in 1784.  It is a fine example of the composer’s skill at absorbing the ethos of Highland music but not allowing it to descend into pastiche or parody. This is an intricate and completely pianistic work that transforms a simple tune into a virtuosic piece. It can be seen as a key to understanding much of what Chisholm composed.

The Tango is very different to the general run of music on this disc. It is a kind of Ravelian distortion of the dance that vacillates between the dance-hall and the recital room. Much of the piece is straightforward, but towards the middle of the work, the harmonic structure transcends the downright popular. A wistful mood closes this lovely piece that would do well as an encore.

Another candidate for an encore is the ‘over the top’ Sonata Electra. This piece has all the hallmarks of a latter-day Liszt or Thalberg. It is certainly one of those works that is hardly subtle but is great fun. It is not a long piece, lasting under five minutes but it is certainly seriously demanding for the soloist. The sleeve notes remind the listener that Chisholm ‘might well have become a virtuoso pianist’ and certainly this piece would tax the best of them.
The last of the miscellaneous pieces is the Dance Bacchanal which surely nods towards the more percussive works of Bartok or the complexities of Sorabji. It is a confident and complex piece that is volcanic in its energy. However there are a few moments when the tension eases, but they never last for long. Chisholm had planned an orchestral version of this piece.

After listening to these short pieces the listener could move on to a study of the two Sonatinas The Fifth Sonatina opens with a short minuet that is based on a traditional love song composed by Conrad Paumnan in the fifteenth-century.  Yet even here, this music is subjected to the twists and turns of Chisholm’s Scottish interests. The Berceuse is hardly a restful lullaby; certainly no child could sleep through this strong, intense music based on an even earlier dance tune. Yet the closing bars have a certain serenity denied to most of this Sonatina. The last movement is The Jew’s Dance. This is a whirling, circular piece that explores a number of artificial ‘scales and modes.’
The Sixth Sonatina mines musical material from Davison and Apel’s Historical Anthology of Music. The first movement, a Basse Danse opens with an almost literal transcription of the sixteenth-century tune, but almost immediately Chisholm works his magic and more complex harmonies and contrapuntal constructions emerge. The Aria is very slow and deliberate evoking the courtship dance of peacocks –at least according to the sleeve notes. The final Burlesque is exactly that. It most certainly pushes the music towards parody and gross exaggeration. This is technically complex music is largely polytonal and quite deliberately confuses key relationships.

In the previous volumes of Chisholm’s music the listener was able to hear thirteen of the Piobaireachd for solo piano. As I understand it, the present CD includes the remaining numbers that are still extant. These are largely based on bagpipe tunes that are reworked or even recreated by Chisholm. The particular interest in these pieces lies in the fact that the composer has used the tune and some of its attributes such as the drone as the basis for his own invention. His approach to this music is less one of transformation or variation, than of commentary. One of the principles of Piobaireachd is that originally it was a set of variations. Chisholm understands this process and does nothing to destroy the power of the original, yet the sum is greater that the parts. I would rather listen to these piano pieces than the original tunes for the bagpipe! For me there is so much of interest and variety of expression and emotion. The present series of Piobaireachd have a number of sources of inspiration including a Lament for King George, the Bells of Perth, a Harp Tree, based on the Celtic Harp and a lovely title called Squinting Patrick’s Flame of Wrath.  I suggest that these are listened to as a group of pieces. Interesting and technically impressive as these pieces are, eight is quite sufficient for one sitting. The programme notes are essential for understanding and appreciating these Piobaireachd.

The Cameos are superb.  After the complexities of some of Chisholm’s more acerbic and harmonically challenging pieces, these come as a definite moment of relaxation. The fourth volume presented eight of these Cameos and here we have a further twelve: there are five still to come in a future release. These pieces are defined as “a series of early brief studies of impressive variety”. The titles of these Cameos seem to be like thoughts that flitted across the composer’s mind or were reactions to a poem or page of literature. For example, one of them is called Cargoes and is a robust but extremely short meditation on one aspect of Masefield’s great poem – the “jewels in a stately Spanish galleon". The Wagoner is even shorter and alludes to Edmund Blunden’s poem of the same title and specifically to the line “On a dulled earth the night droops down”. John Purser notes that the last Cameo is called The Rainbow, based on some lines from Walter de la Mare’s poem. He suggests that these words may well sum up the entire series:-
“In bright-ringed solitude
The showery foliage shone
One lovely moment
And the bow was gone.”
This piece is not only convincingly evocative of these words, it is downright ravishing: it is a pity it lasts less than one minute.

Perhaps the most important work on this CD is the Sonatine Ecossaise. In spite of its diminutive title this is a major work. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that it holds its own against those Sonatinas by John Ireland and Maurice Ravel. However, it is essential to recall that Chisholm wrote this work from his own point of view: he effectively creates a new form. Typically a Sonatina would follow, at least loosely’ the classical model. However Chisholm has abolished this form: he has not attempted to write any movement in abbreviated Sonata form. Chisholm utilises the concept of ‘building up a set’ of contrasting tunes which are not subject to development. It is more difficult to achieve this than may at first appear. It is not a medley of songs such as we used to hear at the end of the pier – A Selection from The Gondoliers. It is a careful balancing act designed to present a number of melodies that both contrast and complement each other. Repetition is allowed, although always with decoration. Yet this is not classical or baroque ornamentation but is what Chisholm has referred to a ‘cuttings’.  The composer wrote, in connection with Indian music that “Grace [notes?] is not just some additions to a melody...but is an integral and inseparable part of the whole”. This is a good definition of the musical theory behind this work. However, the order of the tunes and the repetitions (although often changed) of each tune give cohesion. The Sonatine Ecossaise is in three movements. The work was originally composed in 1929 but was revised in 1951. Please listen to this work as a separate entity. It well deserves and rewards study and attention.

It is  impossible to fault this fifth volume of an ongoing series of Erik Chisholm’s piano music. In my review of the first four discs I noted the huge commitment made by the pianist Murray McLachlan. It is always a momentous task to record a cycle of piano works. It is even more onerous when the works are typically not in the public domain. This has to be definitive. It is unlikely that there will be a subsequent recording of the ‘complete’ works for many years, if ever. Fortunately McLachlan has risen to the challenge. He is ably assisted by the fine acoustic of the Whiteley Hall at that great Mancunian institution, Chetham’s School of Music. Apart from one of two clicks during the Harris Dance, I have found the recording to be excellent. John Purser’s programme notes are superb and are both helpful and informative. I look forward to reading John Purser’s book which arrived a couple of days ago on my desk for review. The presentation of the CD is rather good, with a nice photograph of ‘pleasure boats on Loch Lomond’.  It is altogether a fine production and essential for anyone who is an enthusiast of British piano music. In fact, I believe that Erik Chisholm is so important that his music ought to have International status rather than just a local interest. I repeat my assertion that this series of CDs showcase one of the most important “musical discoveries and revelations of the Twenty-First Century”. 

Track Listings:
Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965) Music for Piano - Volume 5 Piobaireachd for solo piano (undated)Sonatina No.5 (undated) Sonatina No.6 (1946) Cameos (1926) Sonatina Ecossaise (1929 rev. 1951) Harris Dance (undated) Tango (1926) Sonata Electra (undated) Dance Bacchanal (1924)
Murray McLachlan (piano) DIVINE ART DIVERSIONS DDV 24140

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