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:-
Eric Chisholm (1904-65)
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 

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