Scottish composer Erik Chisholm has been neglected for decades but thanks to the efforts of a trust set up in the composer’s name by his daughter, Morag, his music is gradually being brought before the public. Spearheading the revival is pianist Murray McLachlan. The previous 3 volumes in the series were recorded for Dunelm Records. All the volumes are now being handled by the Divine Arts under their Diversions label. Volume 4 of the piano music consists of one of Chisholm’s sonatinas coupled with 4 sets of short pieces. Many of these pieces are quite short and they enable the listener to appreciate the concentration of Chisholm’s musical thought. He is capable of writing with succinct economy and yet there are always surprising twists of harmony and rhythm that avoid the commonplace. Chisholm’s often searching language perhaps stems from his vast knowledge of contemporary music; his formation of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in Glasgow in 1929 afforded him the opportunity to meet many important composers of the time, including Bartok, Szymanowski, Casella and Sorabji. He would certainly have been aware of Bartok’s idiosyncratic way of preserving and utilising the folk songs of his country; this may have spurred Chisholm into his own long association with Scottish folk music.
It is with Scottish folk music that the CD begins; numbers 5 to 13 from the set of Piobaireachd. The remainder of the set appear on volume 3 of the series. These are amazing works; the way Chisholm combines the bagpipe tunes with the full resources of modern harmony is extraordinary. The melodies are embellished with ‘cutting’ as in all pipe music and these proliferate through the texture like the tendrils of a plant. Sometimes Chisholm presents pipe tunes simply, but occasionally seeks to almost overwhelm them with a welter of churning dissonant harmonies. The effect is often improvisatory in feel; in fact sometimes Chisholm puts me in mind of the convulsive virtuosity of free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Harmonically, Boulez is even pre-echoed as I mentioned in my review of the other works in the Piobaireachd set on DDV24133. McLachlan copes with the significant pianistic demands with great gusto and commitment; he convinces in music which is far from easy to appreciate at once. Taken as a whole, the set of 13 Piobaireachd may constitute, along with the superb Sonata in A, the most significant piano works of Chisholm. His undoubted eclecticism is kept under tight control in these works; the Piobaireachd don’t feel merely experimental, they herald a brave aesthetic that defines itself from the first bar. And perhaps most movingly they seem infused with nature; the harmonies blurring like trees seen through a Scottish haar in early morning, the melodies weaving vegetally through rocky edifices, the rhythms following the flow of hills! This quality of the inward expression of nature (a kind of ‘inscape’; the term used by Manley Hopkins in relation to poetry) is sometimes noticeable in Chisholm. It is a quality only heard in the best nature works such as Grainger’s ‘Hill Song No. 1′.
Chisholm’s Sonatina No. 3 is one of a set of six where he borrowed material from renaissance composers. The 4 movements adapt music by Dalza, Ganassi, anon. and Spinaccio. Chisholm is a master of piano voicing and his skill comes to the fore in this charming work. McLachlan has recorded this work before on Olympia OCD639.
The catalogue of Chisholm piano music (just published by the Erik Chisholm Trust) lists 25 pieces under the overall title Cameos. In 1926 Curwen published a selection of 8 of these pieces, although not 1 to 8 as it states in the catalogue. So for those wishing to check, Murray McLachlan plays nos. 1, 15, 3, 2, 17, 25, 9 and 20 according to the complete list in the catalogue. He played the same set of 8 on the aforementioned Olympia disc, OCD639. I’m glad the Murray McLachlan has re-recorded these pieces since Olympia CDs have now become quite rare. Listen to the way the pianist floats the melody of ‘The Mirror’ or how he picks out the rhythms and shapes of what might be called the ‘sideways’ motifs in ‘The Procession of Crabs’ – it is all delightfully done. These pieces may be whimsically pictorial but they hide much skilful writing.
Chisholm wrote a great many Highland Sketches and McLachlan plays 6 of them here. The tunes are taken from Patrick MacDonald’s ‘A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs’ published in 1784. Chisholm’s versions of these tunes are full of off-kilter bass drones and piquant dissonances although the language is less extreme than in the Piobaireachd. McLachlan is by turns meditative and sprightly as he characterises each tune.
In his excellent notes, John Purser dates the 6 Portraits to 1924-29. They demonstrate a bold iconoclastic musical personality – Chisholm was only 20 when he began the set. ‘Épitaphe’ makes much use of parallel minor 9ths and clashing harmonies. The manuscript of ‘Melodie Chiaroscura’ has a superscription from an as yet unidentified author – although John Purser speculates that it might be Whitman. In this superscription we read the phrase ‘There is no unity of color….there can be no unity’. This is perhaps equivalent in sentiment to that revealed in Manley Hopkins’ poem Pied Beauty – ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’, and it could stand as a moto for much of Chisholm’s music as well; its restless spirit, its eclecticism, its ever seeking of new sounds and ways of expression. This is the most beautiful and touching piece on the disc. The 3 rd portrait, ‘Porgy’ was inspired by the same Du Bose Heyward novel that captured Gershwin’s attention. Suffice it to say that Chisholm’s music is about as far from ‘Summertime’ as one could expect! It is a score boiling with incident and drama that reminds me of Alban Berg or even Michael Finnissy. The next 2 portraits ‘Agnes and the Maultasch’ and Süss Communes with Malmi’ take their inspiration from the work of Lion Feuchtwanger, the German-Jewish writer who predicted the atrocities of the Nazis. Indeed the second of them carries a dedication to Feuchtwanger. I don’t know if Chisholm and Feuchtwanger ever met but it is easy to see how the Scot, a life-long socialist, was attracted to the German writer. ‘Agnes and the Maultasch’ finds Chisholm exploiting the minor 9 th for expressive effect. ‘Süss communes with Malmi’ presents a barren landscape obsessively filled with major thirds; again Berg comes to mind. After this melting pot of modernism the last piece comes as rather a shock – it’s a somewhat tame paraphrase of a salon waltz. Suddenly the piano writing becomes conventional but Chisholm still provides glimpses of unusual harmony.
Throughout this disc Murray McLachlan once again shows his dedication to the Chisholm cause. I hope other pianists will be inspired by him and play Chisholm’s music; some of it ought to find a place in the repertoire. At his best Chisholm’s piano music can hold its own among that of the first half of the twentieth century. On this CD alone there are the unique Piobaireachd to be explored and within the 6 Portraits, ‘Melodie Chiaroscura’ and ‘Porgy’ seem to me to be masterpieces. I recommend this disc wholeheartedly. Jim Pattison has made a fine recording using the Steinway at Cheatham’s School, Murray McLachlan has produced some of his best playing and the booklet is packed with information. And the music? It simply demands to be heard.