Movement 1: Molto moderato (tranquillo)
Movement 2: Allegro scherzando
Movement 3: Adagio
Movement 4: Allegro con brio
The earliest version of the Pìobaireachd Concerto dates from 1932. By December 1937 it was revised and, in 1938, first performed in a broadcast from Edinburgh with Chisholm as soloist and Ian Whyte conducting. The first public performance, however, was in the St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow on 20 January 1940, with Chisholm again as soloist and Aylmer Buesst conducting the Scottish Orchestra. Unfit for active service, Chisholm spent the first months of the war painting white lines on the streets and blacking out windows:
Well, in this painting business I don’t think that my musical training is altogether wasted. When painting lines on steps and along the edge of pavements I lay on the paint as a musical stave—in five lines with four spaces between—and this gives me an advantage over the man who lives as it were only from line to line, doing what must be one of the most monotonous jobs in the world. Looked at in this way, our gang must have ruled enough five lines and four spaces to write the complete works of Bach and Beethoven! … Nor can I complain that my life lacks variety—this morning, for instance, I was helping in blacking-out 1200 large windows in a large building & now I am going off to rehearse my piano concerto with the Scottish Orchestra.
The pìobaireachd on which the first movement—Molto moderato (tranquillo)—is based is Maol Donn, now known as MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. Maol Donn is a lament for the death of a favourite cow and it has an associated pìobaireachd song. Songs in praise of individual animals are common in the Gaelic-speaking world, and with good reason, for its economy has been focused on cattle for thousands of years. Such sentiments may seem odd to some readers in an orchestral context: but we are dealing here with a culture which has retained much of its closeness to nature and which still retained a degree of veneration for cattle, as is the case to this day in the East. Since his mother was a MacLeod, Chisholm would have welcomed the association of this tune with the MacCrimmons, who were the MacLeods’ hereditary pipers.
The concerto opens with bassoons supplying the drone, and a solo oboe playing the bagpipe line verbatim. Chisholm’s treatment is, however, entirely his own, and one can hear immediately how effectively he has translated the idiom pianistically. The first variation is a much more energetic affair than would be the case in a normal pìobaireachd, the piano soon stamping out the rhythm in the bass, with the tune in the violins and upper wind. There follows a return to the opening tempo with the piano in rhapsodic mood. This, though rarely done at this point in modern pìobaireachd playing, used to be an integral part of the tradition in the eighteenth century. The ensuing variation (Allegretto scherzando) is a jig that brings out a totally different character in the tune. This is followed by a thoroughly joyful passage leading to the cadenza, which runs the jig to ground and, via a ruminative section, prepares us for a return to the opening, but in different guise.
There is no conventional recapitulation of the main theme or, as would also occur in the tradition, the ùrlar. A brief up-swell of feeling—it is marked appassionato—is more in the classical than in the traditional mould, but it captures and extends that moment which, in pìobaireachd, hovers between the elaborate and the simple as the ùrlar returns. For all its liveliness, there is much that is thoughtful and lyrical in this movement, honouring the gentle and beautiful shape of the ùrlar itself.
The second movement, Allegro scherzando, is a wonderfully energetic Scottish dance. It is delivered with a splendid mix of Stravinskian neoclassical techniques and more volatile Bartókian twists, twice grounding itself in a slow powerful passage in the lower register which, on its second appearance, is summarily dismissed with the last gesture of the movement. The tune itself is a lively variation on the pìobaireachd Fàilte Uilleim Dhuibh Mhic Coinnich—The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute.
The slow movement, Adagio, is based upon the famous Cumha Dhomhnuil Bhain Mhic Cruimein—The Lament for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon, for which Chisholm has marked the solo piano to be played ‘very distant and impersonal’. This pìobaireachd is reputed to have been composed by Malcolm MacCrimmon on the death, in 1746, of his younger brother, Donald Bàn. Donald Bàn is also the subject of Cha Till MacCruimean. Even if it is not by his brother, we know that when Donald Bàn was previously captured, the pipers on the opposing side refused to play until their own leaders released him, which was duly done. So it is anything but an impersonal pìobaireachd. Indeed, it is written of the famous piper John MacDonald that it ‘was almost sacred to him’.
If it was sacred to Chisholm, it was in a very different way. He has enshrined it as though it were indeed a sacred object from the past, announced and concluded by a stroke on a gong, and veiled in mysterious textures. Low flutes set the tone, over which the piano introduces the ùrlar, like a bird in the night, uttering complex cries, brief but haunting, derived from the pìobaireachd. This is then taken up by the oboe and bassoon.
The sense of mystery is continued in the first variation, with the veiled tonal wash of the piano and horn, against which a solo violin, followed by solo clarinet, draws out a long thin line of sound as if from another world. The harmonic and orchestral textures here are rich and strange—sometimes coming like waves of water or light. Throughout it all, phrases from the ùrlar emerge and sink back into the texture. As the music gathers strength, the muted trumpet sings its own lament against rising arpeggios from the soloist, and the inherent riches of the whole burgeon into a climax which suggests a vastness beyond. There is a close similarity between this movement and the latent and sometimes terrifying power of Chisholm’s Night Song of the Bards for solo piano.
The finale, Allegro con brio, starts as a reel—a quintessentially Scottish dance form which has traditionally involved rhythmic twists as part of its repertoire of tricks. Chisholm is quick to exploit this, with syncopations and notes picked out by additional emphasis, achieved through declamatory orchestral chords where the traditional fiddler would use bow attack or double-stopping. Into this repertoire of standard tricks Chisholm throws chromatic displacement of chords and spirited orchestration, tossing around from section to section fragments of rhythm. And ‘rhythm’ is the operative word. When asked whether melody or rhythm came first in his music, Chisholm responded: ‘I rather think the rhythmic impulse is strongest; a definite body stimulus which, by its continued reiteration, induces a feeling of magnetic attraction (or sheer monotony) is a characteristic of the pìobaireachd, and also in my music.’ The tune is number 16 in the Patrick MacDonald collection, and demonstrates that even a quite uniform pattern, when related to pitch with skill, becomes wonderfully provocative rhythmically.
A more lyrical section follows, with solo piano and woodwind seemingly anticipating Bartók’s third Piano Concerto, anticipations which keep surfacing as the piece gathers energy on its way back to the reel. One moment stamping a foot, the next swirling and turning, with a final fusillade of off-centre chords, it ends—anything but exhausted, but with a flourish as if to say ‘that is enough for now’.
Taken as a whole, this four-movement work not only introduces a new idiom to the world of the concerto, but also a new type of virtuosity. The piano concerto as a form is riddled with cliché, but in the twentieth century, particularly in the concertos of Bartók, there emerged a new kind of pianism. Chisholm had played the solo part of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 1 in Glasgow, but Bartók had only just completed his Concerto No 2 on his second visit to Glasgow in November 1933. Chisholm’s piano-writing is totally different from both of these works. If there is a Bartók concerto which might be placed alongside Chisholm’s No 1, it is the Third—composed after Bartók had twice stayed with the Chisholms and, intrigued by what he had heard, travelled home with as much pìobaireachd as he could carry, and a bagpipe chanter under his arm.
from notes by John Purser © 2012