This is the sixth of eight projected volumes of the complete piano music of Erik Chisholm (see reviews of Vols 1-4 and Vol. 5). As there is no catalogue of his music currently available, it is not possible to tell what has still to be released and, if there are some hidden gems that have been overlooked, although I imagine that Messrs. McLachlan and Purser will have contrived to omit nothing of importance.
The briefest of glances at the Chisholm Trust website will show a huge variety of music in many genres and combinations of instruments. Yet the ‘theme’ that runs through Erik Chisholm’s music are the works for the piano: they are essential to gaining an appreciation of his musical achievement. Furthermore, any understanding of this music has to take account of the various stages in his compositional career: he helpfully provided these details in an excruciatingly badly hand-written catalogue produced in 1963:-
Early works 1923-27
Scottish Music 1929 to 1940 (?)
Hindustani works 1945-51
Like any attempt at classification, this is surely only a rule of thumb: there will be plenty of exceptions. However it is a good reference marker to begin exploration of Chisholm’s music. One final suggestion. I would suggest the listener takes this CD slowly: it is not something that can be put into the CD player and through-played and half-ignored. I guess I would recommend that each work be played separately – after having read the programme notes.
Before progressing with the review I must write that my only serious complaint about this CD is the lack of dates for most of the works. In fact, the first set of pieces, the Ceol Mor Dances only indicates when the work had been orchestrated- not when originally composed! The ‘catalogue’ of piano music referenced by the Chisholm WebPages also lacks dates for most of these works. I find that it is important to my listening that I am able to situate the work in its historical and chronological milieu. Even reference to John Purser’s excellent biography has been little help as a number of the works performed on this CD are not indexed. However, I guess that from the titles of the pieces it is possible to speculate as to which ‘period’ of the composer’s activity they were written.
The Ceol Mor Dances are ‘technically challenging’. John Purser notes that the title is a contradiction in terms. ‘Ceol Mor’ is Gaelic for ‘Big Music’. This is opposed to ‘Ceol Beag’ which literally means ‘little music’ but is also a conversational idiom for ‘dance music.’ Certainly, these complex pieces must not be regarded as some attempt to write pastiche ‘ceilidh’ music: they are much more technically involved than that. There are echoes of Eric Satie in these pages and the pianism look towards the European tradition in spite of the eruption of a number of Scottish fingerprints. I am reminded of Liszt and his Hungarian Dances – few villagers would have jigged the night away to that music: the same can be said of these dances by Chisholm.
The Dunedin Suite was inspired by The Dunedin Association which was set up in 1911 by Janey Drysdale with the aim of supporting Scottish music, however, by the nineteen thirties it had declined in its influence and achievement. Erik Chisholm was asked to try to revivify it, which he succeeded in doing. The Suite was written in a style that juxtaposes the classicism of his Sonatinas and the native music of Scotland. It is conceived in five well-balanced and successful movements. There is much of interest in these pages – most especially the gorgeously moving Sarabande. One of the finest moments is the fourth movement, the Strathspey. This opens with music reminiscent of ‘old world dignity’ before eliding into the ‘dance’ form with its dotted rhythms and highland exuberance, but always tinged with a little regret. Technically the final ‘jig’ is the most impressive – effectively a short two-part invention that balances the composer’s Scottish and neo-classical influences. Perhaps it could be subtitles Bach goes to Barra ?
The Scottish Airs is a work that utilises Caledonian tunes published by Patrick MacDonald in his A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs: Chisholm used this as a source book a number of times. These pieces are individually enjoyable, but I feel that it can be a little difficult listening to nine pieces of which the shortest is a mere 35 seconds. Once again, I suggest these ‘airs’ be approached after a study of the liner notes and a reading of the brief descriptions and the translations associated with each air. Murray McLachlan has suggested that this work can be ‘considered as Chisholm’s response to Bartok’s Improvisation on Nine Hungarian Peasant Songs .’ Although each movement is discrete it can be perceived as a single ‘movement’. The music is strongly Scottish in mood and effect with each section promoting a different atmosphere – wistfulness, grandeur, eeriness and playfulness.
Erik Chisholm has written that his Dance of the Princess Jaschya-Scheena is a ‘pot-boiler.’ However it is difficult to imagine this rather sultry piece being in the category of a recital encore, nevertheless it has its attractions. I am not sure who the princess was in fictional or historical terms, but she does seem to be realised in a manner of orientalism that Cyril Scott would have recognised.
For me the Wisdom Book is the hardest work to come to terms with. Each of these eleven sections is extremely brief with the shortest lasting a mere 16 seconds: the longest is the finale at 42 seconds! The programme note tells us that these are musical illustrations of folk-adages and were composed for children to play. For example, No. 8 is entitled ‘The tortoise and the hare’ whilst the last is entitled ‘Set a begger on horsbak and he will run his hors out of breth’ [spelling as written in the score, apparently] They are all too brief to get a grip on, although I believe that they could be rather fun for young pianists to play.
The last work on this CD is probably the most impressive and certainly one that establishes the composer as a master of his genre. John Purser has written that these pieces ‘call for tremendous virtuosity and intense concentration,’ and concludes by suggesting that they require ‘humility from both performer and listener.’ The Nocturnes: Night Song of the Bards is most certainly not a series of ‘nocturnes’ in the style of Frederick Chopin or John Field. The work was composed at a time when Chisholm was influenced by Hindustani music. Yet the initial inspiration was taken from an anonymous Gaelic story collected in James Macpherson’s Croma which dates back to the 9 th century. It is worth quoting the introduction to this tale:-
‘The story of it is this. Five Bards, passing the night in the house of a chief, who was a poet himself, went severally to make their observations on, and returned with an extempore description of, night. The night happened to be in October, as appears from the poem, and in the north of Scotland, it has all that variety which the bards ascribe to it, in their descriptions.’
John Purser describes this enigmatic music in three full pages of text in the liner notes which deserves to be studied. I was impressed with the sheer magical quality of this music. To my ear, it reminded me of the music Kaikosru Sorabji. However, I note that the German musicologist, Dr. Jürgen Schaarwächter writing on the Web, has suggested that Busoni and Alkan are never too far removed from the sound-world of this long piece. It is certainly a work that, more than any other fuses the various musical influences of Erik Chisholm.
The playing is superb, and reflects the massive commitment that Murray McLachlan has made to the piano music of Erik Chisholm. The programme notes are extensive and excellent (in spite of the above comment about dating) and give as much information as can be wished for. I have noted in a previous review that it is always difficult to produce a ‘complete works’ cycle of any composer: this is compounded by the fact that Chisholm’s music is not really in the public domain, much of it appears to be unpublished and is barely represented on disc by any other pianist. It seems unlikely that anyone will attempt a ‘competitive’ cycle over the coming years. This is, and will remain, the definitive edition of Erik Chisholm’s piano music for many years to come. To that end, Dunelm and Murray McLachan have made a magnificent effort: their goals have been achieved in every possible way. It is a monument to Scottish, European and World music by any standards of judgement.