Music And Vision

Four youthful suites and two later pieces arising out of Erik Chisholm ‘s love of traditional Scottish airs and of Renaissance music bring to an end Divine Art ‘s recordings of his complete solo piano music . This is the way the series ends, not with a bang, but not with a whimper either. In the words of John Purser’s generous, informative and beautifully written liner notes , this final volume ‘to a certain extent, represents a tying up of loose ends’, but it includes the four Elegies, a concentrated and coherent group of pieces which no-one interested in Chisholm ‘s compositions will want to be without.

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.

—Michael Graubart