Eric Chisholm (1904-1965) was a proud Scot who also displayed a marked internationalist bent. He worked as Dean and Professor at the Faculty of Music in Cape Town, South Africa, and as Principal of the South African College of Music but was born in Glasgow. His musical curiosity was piqued when, at the tender age of ten, he was given a copy of Patrick MacDonald’s A Collection of Scottish Airs (1784). It was a turning point for the young Chisholm. Later, Chisholm was to study with Sir Donald Tovey. His horizons encompassed Hindemith, Casella, Walton and, importantly, Bartók (Chisholm was to be nicknamed “MacBartók”), while his folk music interests later also encompassed early Scottish lute manuscripts, the work of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Amy Murray’s Father Allan’s Island . Further, Chisholm was a friend of Sorabji and through him came the influence of Hindustani music. A recurring influence on Chisholm was the “piobaireachd”, the classical music of the Highland bagpipes, dating back to at least the sixteenth century.

The set of four discs is given a dramatic start by the dark, almost scowling gestures that open the “Grave” of the Straloch Suite of 1933 (all the pieces on the first disc precede his arrival in Cape Town). And yet this music is drawn from one of the oldest of Scottish Lute manuscripts. Chisholm’s cheeky contrapuntalist workings of the tune “Ostende” in the first movement (framed by those scowling gestures) is pure delight. The second movement is by far the longest (around double the length of each of its companions) and takes three contrasting tines from the same manuscript. John Purser’s ever-perceptive notes make parallels with the piano writing of late Brahms here, in particular op. 117, and the parallel is indeed easy to hear in the more delicate, ruminative passages. McLachlan is supremely sensitive to the smooth flow of this music, just as he is unafraid of the Bartókian stompings of the finale

The Scottish Airs for Children were all drawn from Patrick MacDonald’s A Collection of Highland Airs , published in 1784. Again, the idea of simple settings of short, folkish pieces recalls the Bartók of Mikrokosmos , especially when one considers they are of increasing difficulty and that the work is dedicated to the composer’s three daughters. Written in the 1940s, these are movements of heightened fragility. McLachlan reveals myriad touches to illuminate the twists and turns of Chisholm’s highly effective settings which, while respecting the originals, nevertheless remains true to the composer’s creative language. The booklet notes identify the original tunes and make informed and pertinent comments on each piece. The final piece on Volume One is the 1939 Sonata in A, “The Red Ribbon”. Here McLachlan presents the premiere recording of the abridged version. The sonata is based on the piobaireachd of its title, “An Riobain Dearg”, a rarely played tune that here receives a searching, prolonged examination. The Sonata was premiered in Cape Town in 1939 but then lay in obscurity in the Cape Town Archives until the composer’s daughter rediscovered it. The present recording is of the abridged version by McLachlan prepared after his Wigmore Hall (London) performance in 2004. Cuts are mainly applied to the finale, although each movement loses something. The first movement is a set of explorative and demanding variations before the extrovert Scherzo based on “The Prince’s Salute”. The bagpipe influence is clearly discernible, while the slow movement is a lament on the demise of the submarine Thetis , which sank in June 1939 with only four survivors (out of 103 aboard). There is fantasy married to searching expression as well as a real feeling of a cry in music as the piece approaches its climax; the finale wears its Scottish origins on its sleeve, its exuberance in marked contrast to the preceding lament.

The title of Preludes from the Edge of the Great World (1943) alludes geographically to the Hebrides Islands, and specifically to their wild beauty. And beauty there is aplenty here, perhaps most acutely in No. 5, “Sea Tangle”, an allusion to a ritual during which one rubbed seaweed between one’s hands as one chanted. Most of these pieces seem to have pretensions over and beyond their durations. They last mainly between three and four minutes and yet speak of far vaster matters. McLachlan’s rendering of “Ossianic Lay” is supremely beautiful and tender. Some are of the utmost simplicity though (“Rudha Ban”, which means “White Point” and is the name of a place on Eriskay). The final piece from this collection, “The Hour of the Slaugh”, emerges as a curious but fascinating mix of Debussy and Bartók. There follows a selection of 26 Airs from the Patrick MacDonald Collection referred to above, heard here in the 1951 revision. Robust, ascerbic work songs rub shoulders with pentatonicism (No. 3) and tunes that honor Bonnie Prince Charlie (No. 4, which seems remarkably Sorabjian). The sheer loneliness of No. 9 (“I am long in solitude”) is as remarkable as it is dark. Even the happier tunes (No. 11, for example) are tempered with the spirit of regret. The final movement, “Prince Albert’s March”, holds some sprightliness but even here there is a shadow. The Petite Suite actually continues the series just heard, although the second movement, “The Mermaid Song” is actually remarkably progressive.

The four movements of Piobaireachd for solo piano heard in this volume contain some virtuoso writing. The variations of the first movement, “Salute for Clan Ranald”, take the music on a real journey. Harmonic progressions are only weakly directional, imparting a heavy, timeless quality (this goes for the second movement, “The Duntroon Pibroch”, also). McLachlan dispenses the more difficult passages with aplomb. Interestingly, the finale takes its starting point from Chisholm’s own clan, and a sense of pride does shine through.

Chisholm stated that the three movements of his First Sonatina are based on O Gloriosa Domina by Luis de Narvaez (fl. c 1538). Indeed, the contrapuntal third movement makes the link known in no uncertain terms before Chisholm subtly and gradually drops his own voice into the harmonic mix. Similarly, the Second Sonatina is based on pre-extant material, this time a Fantasia for lute by Lius de Milan (fl. c 1535) and part of an Agnus Dei from Obrecht’s Missa Sine Nomine . Neo-classicist ideal infiltrate Chisholm’s expression in these two works, both of which are absolute gems. The Second Sonatina simply exudes dignity, and McLachlan gives it all the grandeur it deserves. Two dark Laments separate this from the final, and most extended, piece on the disc (the second one veers towards the Impressionist).

The 34-minute Cornish Dance Sonata , which ends the second volume, is one of Chisholm’s earlier works, dating from 1926. Chisholm went to stay in Cornwall with his piano teacher, Lev Pouishnov. Russian music was in fact important to Chisholm, who actually gave the first complete performance in Scotland of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1926 (actually adding a movement of his own). Two movements of the Cornish Dance Sonata were reworked into his First Symphony. There are three character pieces: “The Wet Scythes”, which develops from simple beginnings to virtuoso assaults (the climax is clearly Russian influenced). There are Scriabinesque moments here as Chisholm explores his various harmonic options. The titles do not reflect the depth of the music: The second movement is called “Chin and Tongue Waggler”, while the finale is misleadingly simply entitled, “With clogs on”. Complex textures vie with the dance impulse to generate considerable excitement. McLachlan navigates the frequently granitic writing easily and confidently.

The fourth and final volume completes the solo piano Piobaireachd which was begun in Volume Three with a sequence of nine movements. The weakened harmonic directionality remains, lending a dream-like aspect to much of the music. That is not to exclude barbarism, which is painted in no uncertain terms in No. 8, “Maclean of Coll putting his foot on the neck of his enemy”, nor complexity (No. 10, “The MacGregor’s Salute”; note that No. 9 is lost).

The third Sonatina is based on earlier music: a Ricercar for lute by Juanambrosio Dalza, a ricercar for gamba by Sibestro Ganassi, an unidentified original for the third movement and finally a lute ricercar by Francesco Spinaccio. The entire piece only lasts 7”49 but is of unalloyed fascination. The second movement, marked “Adagio”, is a dream.

The eight Cameos present the total number of pieces of this title published by Curwen (others exist). Chisholm copyrighted his Cameos in 1926, when he was only 22. The booklet annotator points out the influence of Casella here. In contrast to the Sonatina just heard, the sound-world here is barer. There is much to delight, for example “The Procession of the Crabs”. The six Highland Sketches would act as something of an interlude if it were not for the perfumed sophistication of the second, “Nis o rinneadh ar taghadh”. Finally, Portraits , a group of pieces composed in the 1920s. Impressionism again informs the second piece, “Melodie Chiaroscura”, while “Porgy” is inspired by the same source as Gershwin’s opera (Du Bose Hayward’s 1924 novel) without including any references to popularist idiom. The most interesting of the Portraits is “Süss communes with Malmi”, a tender expression inspired by the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger. After this, the waltz pastiche of the final movement, “Portrait of a fashionable Gentlewoman” sounds a little lame.

This is a superb series of discs that will either individually or collectively act as a splendid introduction to Chisholm’s intriguing music. The recording (Whiteley Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester) is open and clear. Perhaps more depth to the sound space would be welcome, but let this not detract from a most worthwhile set of discs. There is more Chisholm out there, waiting to be discovered, including symphonies and concertos. Symphony No. 2 can be found on a Dutton release (7196).

—Colin Clarke