|REVIEWS: diversions ddv 24155 Erik Chisholm piano music vol. 7|
And so it ends. This is the final volume of Murray McLachlan's epic journey to the center of Eric Chisholm's music. With it, though, a pointer toward the label Hyperion, and an upcoming release of Chisholm's two piano concertos. Tantalizingly, in the context of the Peter Pan Suite, the excellent booklet annotator John Purser makes mention of Chisholm's later operas.
The first of the elegies begins in typical Chisholm fashion: bagpipe drones, Bartókian hard-edged sonorities. Based on a tune in Patrick MacDonald's A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs, it is marked lento maestoso and pesante; the second elegy (two versions are given here) continues this ethos, but includes darker, quieter sections. The slow march of the third elegy includes some remarkably potent harmonies, while the fourth returns to the world of the first.
Impressionism seems to inform "Peter," the first movement of the Peter Pan Suite of 1924; "Wendy" (second movement) continues this current, although it develops further into contrapuntalist territory (beautifully explored by McLachlan). Predictably (but no less magically), it is the "Tinkerbell" fairy of the fourth movement that evokes the ephemeral nature of this Spirit; the central lullaby ("She Sighs for Peter") is beautiful. Captain Hook provides the necessary brawn for the finale. This is by far the most technically challenging movement, and McLachlan copes with its demands with real aplomb.
The easy simplicity of the Fourth Sonatina (1947) is conjured by McLachlan's lightening of tone. Subtitled "From the Past," it originally consisted of three movements, one of which is lost; the other one can be found as part of Sonatina No. 5 in the present series. The movement is based on an appealing lute dance by Hans Neusleider (1508-63).
Good to have the three suites one after the other. Purser refers to these as "occasionally prolix," while referring to their overriding characteristics as "clarity and wit." This clarity manifests as an almost neoclassical transparency, and the wit seems to suit McLachlan's character perfectly. The central Scherzo of the First Suite is full of wit (and cross-handed effects, suavely delivered here). The charming Waltz that follows, borrowed from a suite for flute, clarinet, cello, and triangle, is pure salon music (I think it is actually a finer piece of music than the booklet annotator allows); the finale is a gentle moto perpetuo. The Second Suite lasts nearly 25 minutes and again derives some material from the suite for flute, clarinet, cello, and triangle. McLachlan's clean way with the two-part textures of the second-movement "Caprice" is most appealing: a charming set of variations on Chopsticks. McLachlan's trills in the penultimate movement ("Intermezzo") are similarly appealing, as is his lightness of touch and texture. A wonderfully quirky finale rounds the suite off.
Finally, the single movement of the Third Suite ("Ballet") is a playful, teasing dance that seems just right to conclude this major series of recordings. Bravo to all involved over at that enterprising record company, Divine Art, and to McLachlan for his clear devotion to this music.
MUSIC AND VISION:
The Elegies, whose dates of composition are uncertain, but which are undoubtedly mature works , begin the CD. Each is based on a traditional vocal air from the Scottish highlands, developed and decorated in a uniquely pianistic transformation of the great piobaireachd tradition of ornamentation on the pipes, and, though short, they are no mere arrangements of the tunes . The grim, stark first Elegy, compressed and full of bare fifths and octaves , is endowed with uncompromising power by Murray McLachlan .
He plays two versions of the second Elegy, a sombre pair of parallel but different meditations on the same air. The third Elegy is particularly full of extraordinary piobaireachd ornamentation, marvellously made pianistic.
The fourth Elegy returns to the tune of the first, more floridly decorated. The inclusion of the two versions of Elegy 2, introducing an element of theme and variation , and the varied return of the material of the first Elegy in the fourth make the four (really five) pieces into a rounded and unified ten-minute work .
The Peter Pan Suite dates from 1924 , when Chisholm was twenty. Its five movements are affectionate, varied, witty and colourful character studies of Peter, Wendy, the Crocodile, Tinker Bell and Captain Hook. In his notes, John Purser suggests that Tinker Bell's brief melancholy lullaby at the centre of her otherwise bright and appropriately ethereal bell-like piece might almost have come out of Patrick MacDonald's eighteenth- century collection of Highland vocal airs from which Chisholm drew the thematic material of the Elegies, but there is really very little Scottishness about this mostly diatonic , at times tonally quirky, at others subtly impressionist, suite despite Barrie's and Chisholm's shared nationality.
The Tinker Bell movement does exemplify one slight weakness, hints of which appear elsewhere in the early suites on this CD: Chisholm tends in ternary-form pieces neither to dramatise the return of opening material after a middle section by a strong cadence and a restart in the original key in the Baroque da capo tradition, nor to compose a lead-back, as in most Classical sonata recapitulations. In this movement, Murray McLachlan could perhaps have made the return of the delicate opening music work better by very slightly lengthening the 'Luftpause' before it, but altogether he plays colourfully and affectionately and balances the occasional unostentatious touches of imitative polyphony (such as in the Wendy movement) with subtle dynamic differentiation, making the whole suite thoroughly enjoyable .
Erik Chisholm's six Sonatinas are subsumed under the collective title E Praeterito , but are distributed amongst Volumes 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of this series of recordings. The title, 'From the pst ', announces the provenance of their material. Sonatina No 4, on the present disk, was composed in 1947 and originally had three movements. One is lost . The other two are based on lute dances by the sixteenth-century composer Hans Neusidler. Chisholm almost certainly took them from Davison and Apel's well-known 1946 Historical Anthology of Music , one of them being the notorious Judentanz , which, making an unjustified assumption about the usual tuning of lutes in sixteenth-century Germany , Davison and Apel bizarrely transcribed from Neusidler's tablature as an early, and supposedly antisemitic, piece of radical bitonality. This is the version Chisholm turned into one of the movements of the fourth Sonatina. But at some point, this movement was transferred to Sonatina No 5 (though it is by no means clear from John Purser's notes whether this was done by Chisholm or by the makers of this series of recordings), leaving Sonatina No 4 as a very short single-movement work, a delightful elaborated transcription of two linked lute dances that is delicately pianistic without doing any violence to the essence of Renaissance domestic lute music. It seems a pity, though, that Sonatinas 4 and 5 were not placed on the same CD.
The three suites that complete this recording all date from 1923, a year before the composition of the Peter Pan Suite , when the composer was only nineteen. The charming , rather poignant first movement of the five-movement Suite No 1, arranged from a suite for flute , clarinet , ' cello and triangle, is marked Caprice: Waltz tempo . McLachlan plays it at about 102 beats to the minute, which is unusually slow for a waltz, whether Viennese , French or any other, but seems right for the character of the music.
It has a fast, quirky middle section, and here Chisholm's unmediated return to the opening music works very well. The middle of the Scherzo third movement goes on rather too long , and there is a rather too grandiloquent tierce de Picardie ending , while the fourth movement, a genuine waltz, is the nearest approach to salon music on the disk. The Suite as a whole is attractive , but at over eighteen minutes a little over-extended for its material.
Suite No 2, again in five movements, is, at more than twenty-three minutes, even longer. It seems to have been arranged from the same suite for four instruments that was the source for the first movement of Suite No 1, though the piano score contains indications of the instruments, suggesting that the relationship between the two versions may have been more intertwined. It is more brittle in character, drier and more staccato, than the first Suite. Its third movement consists of eight variations on a theme named 'Chopsticks' -- not the familiar tune of that name at all, but presumably so named because of the alternation of staccato notes in the two hands -- which are well-crafted in their gradual movement away from the theme, but would have greatly benefited from the eighteenth-century tradition of a slow penultimate variation. There is, indeed, a lack of variety in character and mood throughout the whole suite, which is probably the least rewarding piece on the CD.
Suite No 3, by contrast , is not really a suite at all, consisting as it does of a single six-minute movement entitled Ballet, in simple rondo form with two episodes, the last appearance of the main rondo material much varied and ending with a somewhat wistful, pianissimo , throwaway ending. Despite its being in a single tempo, the piece has enough variety and at the same time sufficiently interesting motivic interrelationships to make it into an unpretentious but satisfying conclusion .
This CD is not, perhaps, a disk to listen to from beginning to end in one session. But Murray McLachlan's conviction , his effortless technique , his avoidance of exaggerated rubato and the clarity of his textures , aided by the enviable acoustics and excellent piano of Chetham's Music School in Manchester , where the CD was recorded , and the intimate but not intrusively close microphone placement, all combine to make it more than 'a mere tying up of loose ends'. It begins with concentrated, weighty and intense music. It ends, like the whole series, not with a bang; pianissimo, but not with a whimper.
It has been said that Chisholm's piano music is highly specialised but that certainly does not mean it is unworthy. It is time that people starting listening to his piano music, much of which has the essential quality of greatness which is originality. The massive Sonata in A is one of the finest British piano sonatas. Being original, it has its unusual moments but it is more accessible that the sonatas of Tippett.
I do not have to say how good a pianist McLachlan is. That is well known.
Chisholm's music is not easy to play. People have tried to classify it as somewhere between the Romantics and Impressionists but I would say that he is an independent just as, for example, Janacek was. In Chisholm's music there is sometimes an uncompromising virtuosity which McLachlan is certainly equal to.
The Elegies are based on A Collection of Highland Airs and begin with one after Dan Liughair.The second is after Tha mo ghruaidhean air preasadh and there are two versions , both presented here. The third is after Gur muladach tha mi's mi gun mhacnus, gun hanran.The fourth is based on Dan Liughair and is a strong and expressive piece. These are examples of many pieces which shows Chisholm's commitment and interest in the music of the Highlands. He never forgot his Scottish heritage.
In the Peter Pan Suite of 1924, the composer captures both the fantasy and childhood adventures very well. Peter is playful and unaware of danger, Wendy is thoughtful and reticent and Chisholm has caught her femininity and gracefulness. Tinkerbell has lovely 'music -box' music and the crocodile is sinister and the music suggests it is creeping up on you only to be put to flight. Captain Hook has an arrogant swagger. All are well portrayed. Chisholm can portray characters in a musical setting.
The Sonatina no 4 exists as one short movement. The title E Praeterita means from the past.This delightful miniature is based on a lute tune by Hans Neusiedler ( 1508 - 1563) and is charming, florid and well realised.
The Suite no 1 has five short movements.. .the first and fourth being a waltz or in waltz tempo, the third a scherzo and the finale a moto perpetuo. The first is the caprice in waltz tempo and is very engaging . Fun to play, if you can, and fun to listen to. The second piece is an Albumleaf , a sensitive andante with charming filigree and musical cascades one of many features of Chisholm's piano music. It has a melody that lingers and is therefore memorable. The scherzo has infectious humour and I actually laughed out loud. A man that can write music that makes you laugh happily must be clever ! McLachlan is obviously enjoying it as we are!
If music is about communication , then both the composer and performer have succeeded.
The waltz is a bit of an enigma and the finale is really another joke in the best sense of the word. It may cause a pleasant frown since it is is highly entertaining and calls for a pianist of great skill. This music would go down well with any audience but it must be heard. It must be fun to watch being played as well.
The Suite no 2 has a prelude marked presto, a caprice marked Allegro scherzando then the ' Chopsticks' theme with eight following variations, an intermezzo and the finale is a jig. I judge that the opening prelude is tongue in cheek. You will either find it hilarious or a puzzle. At 3.45 , can you guess what the simple nursery tune is?
The caprice follows which is lyrical and shows the composer's enviable ability with counterpoint . The middle section is impressive with its ostinato figure and a left hand melody. Humour returns , at which emotion this composer was very able.
Now for Chopsticks which not the theme you expect and to which schoolchildren used to sing “Daddy washed his dirty shirt, Daddy washed it clean.” We used to play it on black notes only. But this is not the tune Chisholm uses. The variations are brief and playful. The final variations are especially fine.
Suite no 3 has one movement called ballet which is quirky and seems to suggest someone trying to lead you into mischief. Chisholm's piano music is never banal and always busy and active.
The sound is very good. John Purser, who has written a book about Chisholm, has some very informative and welcome sleeve notes. I also like the way he acknowledges the work of Chisholm's daughter, Morag, who has used her resources to set up the Erik Chisholm Trust. She lives a couple of miles from me and is a person of generosity and sincerity.
I understand that the pianist Danny Driver has just recorded Chisholm's two piano concertos and I am an enthusiast of Chisholm's Pictures from Dante , also recorded, which shows the composer's marvellous sense of orchestration.
Finally, a message for Murray McLachlan ..... thank you.