INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW:
Murray McLachlan's latest installment of piano music by Erik Chisholm (1904-65) does not disappoint. For those who have travelled in the pianist's shadow along this extraordinary journey (four volumes previously released, reviewed in January 2004, May 2005, and January 2008, and three more to be issued quite soon), or even hitched a ride for part of the way, the fascinating cocktail of Scottish and Hungarian nationalistic qualities will doubtless cause little consternation. If, as in my own case, this recording constitutes your only excursion into ‘MacBartók' territory (an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek sobriquet for Chisholm's writing happily perpetuated by McLachlan – and emphatically not a criticism of stylistic inadequacy) then your eyebrows may well disappear into your scalp as you discover what the composer is capable of.
If, for example, you were to accidentally click on track 12 first (entitled ‘Bosse Dance', the opening movement of Sonatina No. 6 of 1946), then you would encounter a perplexing mélange of Claude Gervaise's La volunté , which dates from the middle of the sixteenth century, skin-grafted onto which is the ‘Minute' to Sonatina No. 5, inventively crafted by McLachlan. Given the pianist's torch-bearing generosity towards composers that deserve an even fuller estimation than they have hitherto achieved, such as Ronald Stevenson, John McLeon, Charles Camilleri and John Williamson, it is hardly surprising that McLachlan's visceral empathy with the music of a fellow Scotsman amounts to such a tasteful and imaginative portrayal.
The Bartók reference holds a certain amount of water, to be sure, but only when seen in a far broader context, one that cheerfully embraces out-and-out Impressionism (such as in ‘The Rainbow') and outlandish comedy (‘Seumas Beg'), both taken from a set called Cameos , a dozen beautiful and highly worthy depictions. Then there is the stand-alone Tango , a pithily assembled dance rubbing shoulders with the more overt Scottishness of works like Piobaireachd. ‘Piobaireachd' means ‘piped' in Gaelic, and this set of eight character pieces draws from hues apparently typical of the Scottish Highland bagpipes, but in reality holds music of Messiaen-like opulence (such as in No. 14, ‘The Bells of Perth') set against examples of music possessing an altogether simpler, more immediate charm, such as No. 21 ‘ A Lament for the Harp Tree', topped off by the extravagant train-like momentum in No. 22, ‘Squinting Patrick's Flame of Wrath'.
I found McLachlan's playing to be effervescent and sensitive in equal measure, always clear in its delineation of the more sinewy lyrical strands and yet capable of explosive force where asked. He allows light to settle on the surface of the music without scurrying off unduly to tackle the next. Take ‘Moonlit Apples' ( Cameos ), for example – 43 seconds of inexorable artistry.
The sound on the recording suits the idiom splendidly. I hope to be entrusted with one or more of the remaining volumes in this ambitious survey.
Like the first four volumes of Murray McLachlan's survey of the piano music of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (1904-65) – reviewed in the March/April 2009 issue of IP – this fifth installment brings uneven rewards, but the best of it is unlike anything else in music. What makes the best of Chisholm unique is his transfer of piobaireachd (pibroch), the ancient idiom of the Highland bagpipe, to the modern piano keyboard. The mixture of modality and decoration instantly sounds Celtic, but Chisholm adds the quality of individualism you'd expect from this kind of radical traditionalist – the music of his friend Bartók offers a close parallel.
Murray McLachlan goes at the music with all the enthusiasm of a dog greeting a postman, giving full-blooded accounts of the more extrovert pieces and fleshing out the thinner ones, the effect emphasised by the closeness of the recording. If ever we get the chance to compare different approaches to Chisholm, it will be thanks to McLachlan's pioneering efforts in the first place.
Recently, in Fanfare 32:6, I reviewed the first four volumes of Divine Art's excellent series showcasing the music of Eric Chisholm (1904-1965). There, I provided a précis of Chisholm's activities. As I explained then, “piobaireachd” refers to the classical music of the Highland bagpipes of Scotland. Chisholm was proud of his Scottish heritage, and parallels between his excavations and those of Bartók run deep.
The eight pieces from Piobaireachd display Chisholm's imaginative treatment of his material. The first. ‘Bells of Perth', begins with distant bell sounds whose overtones soon add up to significant clusters. Of note is the darkly brooding No. 17 , ‘Lament for King George the Third', and the sheer loneliness of No. 20, ‘Too long in this condition', the latter based on a tune composed in 1715 by Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon. Chisholm transforms the rather obvious use of rolled chords to simulate harp strumming in No. 21, ‘A Lament for the Harp Tree' into something altogether magical. A sort of slightly toned down Sorabji is implied in the wonderfully titles No. 22, ‘Squinting Peacock's Flame of Wrath'. When I was writing my concluding comments for my extended Chisholm review referred to above, I used the word ‘intriguing' to sum up this music, and if anything this issue underlines this aspect of his music. Chisholm is never content just to take a tune and set it simply; his voice is always there. Most poignant of the initial bunch of pieces is the final, incomplete No. 23, ‘The Lament for the Children', which begins by building up ever so slowly from subterranean bass cords. When the tune is heard, it appears at an unusually high pitch. The piece ends in mid-phrase.
The Fifth Sonatina sounds distinctly neo-Classical after that, The gentile counterpoint that runs through the first movement, Menuet, is based on a 1452 original by Conrad Paumann, but with the odd twist of Chisholm's courtesy. The composer moves back in time even earlier in the next movement, Berceuse, which is ‘after a thirteenth-century two-part dance'. There is an inner core of strength to the movement's middle section (parallel fifths) before the finale, ‘The Jew's Dance' bursts onto the scene. It is based on a ‘misreading' of an original Hans Neusiedler lute piece by Davidson and Apel ( Historical Anthology of Music , published 1946), wherein the lute's tuning was misunderstood. Chisholm turns defect into virtue. The Sixth Sonatina also plunders Davidson and Apel's tome. (The book was fondly referred to simply as “HAM” back in my university days – good to see someone at least put a copy to good use). The central movement of the Sonatina No. 6, an Aria derived from a Gervaise Pavane d'Angleterre, is both dignified and, simultaneously, remarkably beautiful.
The score of Cameos is full of mysteries. Some of the themes are unidentified, and some of these early movements survive only in sketch form. Initially, the effect is of Impressionism, but Chisholm soon moves into his own, classification-resistant world. No. 18, ‘The Spring Lamb', surprisingly threatens to burst out into quotation of Debussy's ‘Puck' before changing its mind at the very last moment. Most of this piece is ruminative in nature, with the honorable exception of the 27-seconds ‘Seumas Beg', the penultimate offering.
The last work of any substantial duration on the disc is the Sonatine Ecossaise , a piece composed in 1929, then revised in 1951. Here, Scottish melodies follow each other naturally in a sort of intuitive sonic daisy chain. The central Lento hinges on a song of farewell (‘MacCrimmon will never return') and is Chisholm at his best. The music is hauntingly evocative, and exquisitely delivered by McLachlan. The final four pieces are varied. A reel provides the basis for Harris Dance , a virtuoso piece that would function well as an encore; the Tango is as delightful as it is unexpected in this context. The piece of pastiche that is Sonata ‘Elektra' is unashamedly bombastic. Finally, Dance Bacchanal (1924) is magnetically rugged and energetic.
Booklet notes by John Purser are exemplary in their detailed knowledge and their usefulness, The fine recording captures every nuance of McLachlan's excellent pianism. Recommended.
KLASSIK.COM (loose translation of German review):
The continuation of the Dunelm series of Piano music of Eric Chisholm from Divine Art opens with The Bells of Perth, an impressive polytonal picture, indeed of an atonal intensity. It is one of a total of 8 „Piobaireachd“ a kind of free fantasy on Scottish Highland melodies. These 8 pieces (two pieces in the series are lost and even the final one offered here has only been partly saved) are comparable in mood and quality with the 9 pieces on the fourth cd in the series. Here again we have a rich spectrum of expression of emotional power up to the totally tonal arpeggio of the "Lament for the Lost Harp Tree" a very sensual and erotic piece.
Of Chisholm's 6 Sonatas the first and second are to be found on CD3, the third on CD 4 and this CD has his three last (each with three movements) - - Sonatas 5 and 6 and the Scottish Sonata. The latter two are undated - but certainly after 1945. The headings show Chisholm the counterpointer. He largely builds on material from the 13th and 16th centuries while the middle movements are astonishing transformations of essentially complex lyrical pictures of intricate texture.
Murray McLachlan succeeds perfectly with the outstanding interpretations that we saw in CDs 1– 4. Apparently he recorded the contents of CDs 3 -5 in 5 days in December 2006 which is in itself a remarkable technical and impressive musical achievement. The recording quality is perfect, the booklet excellent (even if its only in English) and I can only repeat that this series of Chisholm's work can be highly recommended.
Interpretation 4/5; Sound quality 3/5; Repertoire 4/5; Booklet 4/5
This album maintains the standard of this series, one of the most worth-while integrales in recorded history of pianist/composers.
The notes go into detail of the close relationship between Chisholm and Bartok in 1932-33 and the music ranges widely, making a fine recital programme. Some of the music is readily accessible; others require and receive the virtuosity of Chisholm's dedicated champion, Murray McLachlan.
Peter Grahame Woolf
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 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 MacBartók, 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 virtually 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'.