According to the excellent liner-notes by John Purser, this present volume of ‘Music for Piano’ by Erik Chisholm is likely to be the last. He writes that unless ‘current research work uncovers sufficient previously unknown material… [which] at present seems extremely unlikely,’ there will not be an eighth volume. It is a job well done. I have had the pleasure of reviewing all previous releases of this series and have been struck by the vitality, technical competence and sheer ‘enjoyability’ of virtually every work presented. The seventh volume is designed to tidy up a few loose ends. Purser suggests that this disc ought to be listened to ‘within the context of the whole series.’ And he is correct. I guess it is unlikely that many people will set off on their exploration of Chisholm’s piano music with this CD. Most of the pieces on this disc are ‘light’ music – with the exception of the Elegies and the Fourth Sonatina. However, that does not mean that the other works are unworthy of our attention or lack inspiration and sheer musicality.
The most important pieces on this CD must be the five Elegies with which the CD opens. These are dark introspective numbers that reveal the pianistic style of Erik Chisholm at his very best. Most of these elegies are derived from tunes which the composer had found in a variety of ‘song books’ such as the Reverend Patrick MacDonald’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs . However it is important to emphasise that these are not direct transcriptions of the tunes; nor are they simply arrangements or variations. This is not a pastiche of highlan’ music designed to portray a sentimentalised view of the people and places of Scotland. Chisholm’s music is manifestly influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the resultant can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition of both Schoenberg and Bartók. A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – ‘He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.’ These five elegies display this ‘symphonic structure’ in spite of their short duration.
When I first came across Erik Chisholm’s music I read somewhere that he had composed a Peter Pan Suite . Alas, as each CD was issued, this work appeared to be missing. However all things comes to he (or she) who waits.
The Suite was composed in London during 1924, which was some 20 years after James Matthew Barrie’s children’s classic was first published as a stage production. Many people have tried to get to the bottom of this timeless classic and analyses abound. However, it needs neither Freud nor Jung to enjoy the story, save to say that the underlying themes would appear to be a ‘conflict between the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood’.
Erik Chisholm’s Suite is divided into five attractive, but rather concise movements. All the key players from Peter Pan and Wendy are incorporated into the music. From the capricious Peter himself, to the will o’ the wisp Tinker Bell, the lugubrious Crocodile, the more complex than would at first appear ‘Wendy’ theme. Finally, Captain Hook is portrayed by something a little more sinister.
There is nothing particularly difficult (aurally) about this music; however it fair to say that it is an adult’s appreciation of the childhood story. Chisholm never indulges in sentimentality or kitsch.
The Sonatina No.4 is a different story. Part of a series of works entitled E Praeterita (From the Past) is is one of six such pieces. [For the connoisseur, Nos. 1 and 2 are given in Volume 3, No.3 on Volume 4 and Nos. 5 and 6 on Volume 5 of this series]
Only one movement is included of this three movement work: one has been lost and another has reappeared as ‘The Jew’s Dance’ in the Fifth Sonatina. John Purser suggests that this surviving first movement is effectively a transcription of a lute-dance by Hans Neusiedler (1508-1563). However in Chisholm’s hands the music transcends time and becomes an exciting work that almost defies categorisation. It was completed in 1947.
The Three Suites presented here are attractive and enjoyable, but they are not in the composer’s typical style. However they differ from much salon music in their ‘spareness’ of texture, their lack of cliché and their harmonic subtlety. Listen to them one at a time.
The First Suite is in five ‘conventionally’ named movements. It opens with a ‘Caprice ‘that is full of light and sunshine. Yet even here there is a depth and modernity of language that would not be found in a similar suite by Montague Ewing or Haydn Wood. The Feuillet d’album (Leafs from an Album) is a diverse little piece that explores a variety of moods and pianistic formula. The Scherzo is a chipper number that ‘exploits [the] rapid alteration of hands.’ Certainly it sounds a bit tricky to my ear. The ‘waltz’ is probably quite typical of the genre: pleasant but nothing more. Finally, the ‘Moto Perpetuo’ brings the Suite to an exciting conclusion.
To my ear there is nothing of ‘persiflage’ about the Second Suite: it may be fun, but it is never trivial. The first movement is a complex, involved piece that belies the playful nature of some of the passages and the the use of a nursery tune at the conclusion. The second movement, a Caprice is played ‘allegro scherzando’. This is an intense scherzo that has a wide variety of moods and a certain hard edge that denies the concept of a ‘musical joke.’ The next movement is funny: it is based on Euphemia Allen’s universally known chopsticks, which are subject to a number of ‘petite’ variations. However even here there is an edginess that ensures the listener does not dismiss this as nugatory. The ‘Intermezzo’ is a trippy little piece that nods towards the salon. John Purser suggests that it appears to be ‘an exercise in simple pianism [rather] than an inspired piece of music’. He suggests a little editing may have done it a power of good. The final ‘Jig’ is complex and ‘fluent’ however it is not a ‘bucolic’ example so popular with composers of light music. It is an astringent piece of music.
The Third Suite is entitled ‘Ballet’. This is brittle, often staccato music that is hard to pin down. Purser has noted the cross-rhythms and the ‘quirky changes of pace.’ Yet it is quite definitely ‘dance’ music – one cannot listen to this without the mind’s eye seeing it interpreted by a dancer. One recalls Chisholm’s commitment to ballet – The Hoodie Craw and The Forsaken Merman being two important scores. The present Third Suite is often romantic in a fugitive sort of manner – but the abiding impression is of quicksilver. Puck or Robin Goodfellow is a likely inspiration.
John Purser sums this CD up very well when he notes that ‘we leave Chisholm’s music then, not with any grand gestures, modernist assertions, Scottish determination or lyricism, but with unaffected, easy-going and undemanding pleasures…’
I have noted before the great commitment that the pianist Murray McLachlan has made to this cycle of seven CDs – as well as other recordings of Erik Chisholm’s music. It is a major achievement that deserves to be lauded. The liner-notes by John Purser are essential reading, for apart from that author’s excellent monograph on the composer, there is little information about the man and his music that is easily available. The sound recording is superb and benefits from the sympathetic acoustic of the Whiteley Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester. One minor criticism: I would have liked to see the dates for all these pieces given, however it may well be that they are not yet definitively established.
Finally two things need to be said. Firstly, this is the authoritative edition of Erik Chisholm’s music. I cannot imagine another cycle of this piano music being recorded in my remaining lifetime. We are fortunate to have such an exemplary production as that which Divine Art has provided for the listener over the past few years. And, secondly, it is hardly possible to listen to the works on this present CD and the other six and not wonder how such an important contributor to the literature of the piano has gone virtually noticed by lovers of piano music. I make no excuse for concluding this review by quoting myself! ‘I believe that Erik Chisholm is so important that his music ought to have International status rather than just a local interest. I repeat [again!] my assertion that this series of CDs showcase one of the most important “musical discoveries and revelations of the Twenty-First Century’.