The music of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (1904-65) was virtually unknown before 2004 when his compatriot Murray McLachlan began this series of recordings, initially on Dunelm Records, now reissued and continued at mid-price on Divine Art’s Diversions label. Although these four CDs will be followed by five more, to constitute Chisholm’s entire piano output, they already provide evidence of one of the most important oeuvres for the instrument of any British composer. The most ready comparison is to the music of Bartók, and indeed Chisholm found his lodestar in piobaireachd , pibroch, the ancient music of the Scots pipes, no less than Bartók did his in Hungarian folk music. It covers a similar range of expression.
On vol 1. McLachlan offers the Straloch Suite of 1933, an essay in Scottish-flavoured neo-Classicism based on a lute-book of 1627; the 22 Scottish Airs for Children , brief but atmospheric teaching pieces adapted in the 1940s from a collection published in 1784 which establish their Celtic personality within seconds; and the Sonata in A, its Gaelic title meaning The Red Ribbon’ and pointing to the piobaireachd on which it is based. The Sonata is a major find, a feisty, gritty utterly unsentimental work over half an hour in length (even here in McLachan’s abridged version) and sitting somewhere between Bartók and Sorabji – both friends of the composer.
The other three volumes mostly present collections of miniatures. The Piobaireachd , an anthology of 13 pieces, are variation-sets that manage to sound both age-old and startlingly modern, with their roots in ancient pentatonicism and their branches splashed with eager dissonance; John Purser’s otherwise informative booklet notes don’t date them. The three Sonatinas, also undated, are part of a series of six, collectively entitled E preterita (‘From the Past’); these three are founded on music by Dalza, Ganassi, Narvaez, Milan, Obrecht, Spinaccio and Valderravano, from either side of the turn of the 16 th century, and beautifully realized. And although the lack of variety in works like the Two Piobaireachd Laments , the 26 Airs from the Patrick MacDonald Collection , Highland Sketches and Portraits tend to weary the ear on an all-Chisholm CD, they would, judiciously excerpted, bring colour and character to a mixed recital programme. I’m not sure the bluff Bartókian vigour of the third and fourth movements of the early (1926) Cornish Dance Sonata (on vol 3) is enough to compensate for the longueurs of the first two – rather, this is the young Chisholm finding his own feet. The toughly argued Cameos (published in 19026) likewise predate his obsession with Scottish music but enjoy the virtue of brevity.
Murray McLachlan has always been a forceful, enthusiastic pianist, and there are times when one wonders if he might have found a little more poetry in Chisholm’s Highland evocations. But the sheer energy of his playing is not to be denied, and he certainly knows how to project Chisholm’s held chords into the space of the Whitely Hall at Chetham’s School of Music (where McLachlan teaches) to suggest a sense of scale. His achievement in presenting this huge and hugely neglected body of piano music deserves enormous praise. Now other pianists must follow his example and begin to take Chisholm into their repertoire.