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Erik Chisholm Centenary Celebration
Murray McLachlan (piano) Wigmore Hall, London 4 January 2004 and CDs

Out of doors
Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell'egregio poeta Hugh MacDiarmid
Pibroch Sonata (1939)[London premiere]
Sonata I.X.1905 'From the Street'
A Threepenny Sonatina [world premiere]
Fantasia contrappuntistica (Edizione Definitiva, 1910)

This challenging programme of Murray McLachlan's 'official' Wigmore Hall debut recital was devised as an Erik Chisholm Centenary Celebration at Wigmore Hall and given there first on the day this once famous Scot had been born a hundred years before. A musical polymath, Chisholm (1904-1960) was active in his relatively short life as a composer who drew on diverse cultural influences, and he worked too as organist, conductor and administrator, notably in Cape Town where the centenary is being celebrated with productions of his operas. It did Chisholm and his memory a great service for McLachlan to have devised this sequence, centring on the presentation of the London premiere of a major sonata, surrounded by music which significantly influenced him, a testimony to Erik Chisholm's wide ranging enthusiasms.

Out of Doors was a reminder that Chisholm was a friend of Bartók, and the first to bring him to UK, where he purchased "all the piobaireachd music he could lay his hands on!" The 'small piece' by Sorabji (no easy one though), brief but typically wild, reflected this maverick composer's friendships with Ronald Stevenson and Chisholm. Stevenson was present, amongst many luminaries of an earlier generation, and his Sonatina after the Weill-Brecht opera struck a welcome lighter note in the second half, following Janácek's memorial sonata which had received a luminous and moving performance from McLachlan, none better to my recall (Chisholm was an authority on Janácek and wrote the first major study of his operas in English).

Each half had one extremely demanding major work. Chisholm's 35-minute Sonata (1939) "fuses Bartókian textures and harmonies with Celtic-inspired melodies, rhythms and colours". The opening of the first movement suggests a Scottish piper and the pianism is of the kind that exploits the orchestral potential of the piano, unfashionably as of now, but welcome to hear again. I found the Scherzo a little heavy and relentless (often a misnomer, q.v. Brahms and Chopin) and wondered if the textures might not be lightened a little and the dynamics more varied? The Lament for the loss of the submarine Thetis (an event shortly before War was declared which I remember well, though only 12 at the time) is an expansive slow movement, and the rhythmic energy of the finale brought to mind the first sonata of Tippett, composed around the same time.

Finally, the 'operatic' Edizione Definitiva of Busoni's great Fantasia, in which "extensive use of the sostenuto pedal in performance can cast fearful shadows" over the Bach fugues. McLachlan's exemplary programme note stresses how ahead of its time was the "plethora of futuristic harmonies" in which Busoni realises new possibilities, "rising on the shoulders" of Bach's fragment towards a new future. It is possibly unrealisable in its totality, rather as there can never be a last word on Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata, and it is relevant that Chisholm brought Egon Petri to Glasgow's Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music for a Busoni recital.

To bring us down from the heights, Murray McLachlan finished with two little Chisholm Scottish Airs as encores, exactly right. He had demonstrated sensibility, concentration and endurance throughout a notable recital, for which he was duly acclaimed by a near full Wigmore Hall audience, marred only by some persistent, uncovered coughing from the keyboard side. An indication of the north/south divide in Britain is that whilst this programme is to be toured widely up north and recorded for CD, apparently nothing else is scheduled in Southern England by the Erik Chisholm Trust, so do look out for the release of this recital programme on CD.

Of the two CDs of Erik Chisholm's music available I would recommend first Murray McLachlan's studio recordings of solo piano music on Olympia OCD 639. This is well documented by the composer's daughter and by the pianist. Under the influence of his friendship with Bartok, which led to his becoming known as McBartok, Chisholm has demonstrated that Scottish folk-song is as fruitful a source for art music as have been those of Poland and Hungary; Chisholm's Scottish Airs are good equivalents to Bartok's better known Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; his sonatinas are delightfully inventive, and his early music is always well crafted.

Transfers from earlier live recordings of Chisholm's 1st Piano Concerto and more solo compositions, all played by Murray McLachlan, are available from Dunelm. The Elegies (1929-40) combine Bartokian and Celtic influences, and With clogs on is a 'wildly rhapsodic, fierceley defiant and delightfully unpredictable' piece intended for a Cornish Suite, the rest of which remains to be discovered. Definitely a composer worth exploring and revaluing at this time.

Chisholm & his Friends CD of this Chisholm centenary concert:

After the tour of this recital, Dunelm Records has released a CD of as many of the items as can be assembled in a CD (Dunelm DRD0219, 78 mins). I have not seen any of the scores but still wonder whether the Chisholm sonata's Scherzo and Finale might not be performed less relentlessly and (mostly) loud? The long repetitive patterns do become wearing. I have no reservations about the long molto moderato first movement and the affecting Lament for HMS Thetis.

The 'small' though very demanding pieces bu Sorabji and Stevenson are delightful, the latter's take on Weill's Threepenny Opera music ideally placed before the massive Edizione Definitiva of Busoni's great Fantasia Contrappuntistica. Even for those who are not attracted yet by Chisholm, the CD is well worth acquiring for this Busoni performance, which ranges from Bach to Busoni's unique and characteristic idiom with consummate originality and a variety of expressive pianism - the hard won final stretta is a due culmination of McLachlan's engrossing performance.

[Expanded from review in Classical Source]


© Peter Grahame Woolf