Whilst it is undoubtedly true that developments in communication have made it possible for anyone to walk down the street carrying a virtual Encyclopaedia Mundi on their phone or iPad, seemingly to render irrelevant possession of the printed word, occasionally one encounters situations where one longs for a pocket-sized printed reference book, enabling one to look up something quickly and grasp the essence of the matter from the layout alone without going through the malarkey of Googling and pressing interminable buttons before arriving at additional information one did not, in fact, want.
A good example, for those interested in recordings of classical music, is the demise of the Gramophone quarterly catalogue, especially for those who wish to find out if music by an infrequently-encountered composer is still available, or whether such and such a work has been recorded at all, or—as in Erik Chisholm’s case—if the composer’s work is sufficiently well represented on disc, an interest made more compelling if the recordings have been issued by different companies.
It is an important point in Chisholm’s situation (just one highly significant composer whose music deserves greater public exposure than it gets), and those familiar with Chisholm’s work should forgive some introductory comments on this quite astoundingly original yet immediately compelling composer, who was rather more than someone who just wrote music.
For many the name Erik Chisholm will mean little. On the basis of a number of records released on various labels over the past dozen or so years, and an outstanding book by John Purser—Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965: Chasing a restless muse (Boydell & Brewer, 2009)—we have opportunities to investigate Chisholm’s work in a way denied earlier generations. In my opinion, as well as that of others, it is certainly worth the effort, for, as the late Sir Charles Mackerras wrote: 'Chisholm was a musician of rare capabilities. He was a pianist and organist, a conductor, a composer, a lecturer on music, an entrepreneur and an administrator, and to all of them he brought a unique blend of originality, flair and energy.'
Chisholm was born in Glasgow and his Scottishness is clearly a significant aspect of his work as a composer, yet he travelled widely, becoming Professor of Music at Cape Town University just after World War Two. It may well be that this appointment told against a general acceptance of Chisholm with the rise of Apartheid during the next two decades and an assumption that all white South African residents perforce supported the government, but before the War, he had conducted the British premieres of Berlioz’s The Trojans and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and had invited Bartók, Hindemith, Casella and other international figures to Glasgow to participate in performances of their music. He was a piano pupil of the great Lev Pouishnoff (Russian émigré, a long-time British resident) whose early-1950s BBC Television live studio recitals older music-lovers will recall with affection.
Despite Chisholm’s qualities in other areas, it is as a composer that we assess him today, and there can be no doubt, on the evidence of several recordings—to say nothing of this Hyperion release—that he was the most significant Scottish composer (possibly the most significant all-round Scottish musician) of the first half of the twentieth-century—and even, in some respects, the most important Scottish composer of all.
Whilst no composer can entirely submerge their musical ethnicity, despite the ‘internationalism’ beloved of today’s younger practitioners, Chisholm’s Scottishness is not merely to be found in melodic and rhythmic colouration—although such features play their part. Having listened again to several earlier records alongside this profoundly impressive Hyperion, I have no doubt that in his music there is a deeply creative musical intelligence at work, the most significant of which is the Violin Concerto of 1950.
It is a quite magnificent composition. In four movements, and playing for almost exactly half-an-hour, it creates its own soundworld, its own structural command, and its own powerful expressions through music that will impress any attentive listener. The first movement—Passacaglia telescopico (in modo Vasantee)—opens with a solemn, contemplative line from cellos and basses (not unlike Shostakovich’s roughly contemporaneous, yet quite unknown, First Violin Concerto), but the emotional and expressive growth soon expands, fully taking the listener on the journey. 'Vasantee' is a clue, for the Concerto is based upon the Hindustani Rag Vasantee. In John Purser’s extensive and enthralling booklet note, from which I briefly quote: 'In terms of mood and structure, this is one of the most remarkable violin concertos ever composed ... Such complex intellectual handling of a single idea could have turned out to be dry and academic as reality, but this is powerful music with a tremendous physical presence.'
The entire Concerto exudes an air of complete mastery; this composer knows exactly what he is doing, and why; and it is wholly original—not written in some arcane language which one has to learn before beginning to understand what is going on, but composed in a manner such as will not faze admirers of Britten or Prokofiev, or any one of half-a-dozen twentieth-century composers whose music is direct in utterance, serious in intent, yet so totally individual that it cannot be honestly compared to any other—its originality being that of a person addressing us in a way few would have encountered before, taking us with him by way of his own logical and illuminating manner through an essential musical language used in fascinating and entirely new ways. The only other composer’s Violin Concerto which Chisholm’s at times recalls is Havergal Brian’s—though Chisholm’s is on a far less massive scale, nor so tightly impacted—yet both are demonstrable masterpieces, profoundly serious (yet not lacking lightness of touch) utterly true to themselves and themselves alone, offering to the intelligent and serious music-lover worthwhile experiences not to be found anywhere else.
From the dumbfounding Concerto—no sooner had it ended than I immediately wanted to play it again, quite superbly played by Matthew Trusler and the BBC SSO—the oddly-titled From the True Edge of the Great World presents more intrinsically colourful music, yet never more ephemeral in expression. The title refers to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; from twenty-four piano Preludes three are orchestrated by the composer, affording ‘travel pictures’, perhaps, of the region through sounds of brilliant illumination. This work would make a terrific Proms ‘novelty’—if only the planners would, just for a while, drop their seemingly increasing obsession with pop music and musicians of half-a-century and more ago. This suite of three brilliant and colourful movements is less than ten minutes in total duration, and the ending of the final piece would surely nudge any audience into spontaneous applause. Once more, the BBC SSO plays superbly under Martyn Brabbins, and the recording captures the dazzling orchestration to perfection.
The Dance Suite for orchestra and piano (rather like Falla’s Noches or d’Indy’s Mountain Air Symphony, the piano is used in a colouristic, concertante manner) is the earliest (1932), and perhaps grittiest, of the three works. In four movements, lasting around twenty-three minutes, it exudes confidence and certainty in a manner declaring Chisholm’s Scottishness to be brilliantly portrayed from the bustling opening Allegro energico, through the second-movement ‘Piobaireachd’, a 3/4 pulse extraordinarily well maintained in terms of increasing power, to the ‘March’ and concluding ‘Reel’, ending the work in breathlessly imposing fashion.
The performance is both moving and exciting; surely music of this quality cannot go ignored forever, and—by the way—there are twelve operas by Chisholm, including The Importance of Being Earnest, The Caucasian Chalk-Circle, and three on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—all from the 1960s and all in English: one asks again—any takers, English National Opera?