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Erik Chisholm Piano Concertos 1 & 2 (Danny Driver; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; conductor: Rory MacDonald) Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Striking and brilliantly performed music that mixes its influences beautifully.

Charlotte Gardner 2012

It's always fascinating to have musical preconceptions challenged, and the recent revival of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm's output has done exactly that. Think mid-20th century British music and, whether we're in the late Romanticism of Vaughan Williams and Holst, or even Arnold and Britten's more pared-down vernaculars, there's an expectation of a largely soft, lyrical and frequently elegiac style. Within this context, Chisholm's modernist music is as extraordinary and perplexing as it is beautiful.

Characterised by a rhythmic precision and boldness of thought we more readily associate with German and Russian music of the time, it's almost impossible not to think of Bartok and Stravinsky when listening to it, and yet it's much more than a mid-European pastiche. Born in 1904, Chisholm studied composition, piano and organ with the Russian pianist Leff Pouishnoff, but equally as important as this Russian influence was his lifelong fascination with the traditional airs of his homeland.

Add a stint in the Far East during the Second World War, and the musical result, as the titles of these two concertos suggest, is an extraordinary modernist melding of Scottish and Hindustani folk music. However, this was all largely lost to British audiences for decades due to Chisholm moving to South Africa after the war, and then dying relatively early, in 1965.

Hyperion's championing of these highly contrasting piano concertos of 1938 and 1949 is therefore brilliant news. Chisholm emerges as a composer in full command of both the orchestra and the piano, expertly employing their respective resonances and timbres to evoke and translate the sounds of Highland bagpipes and Hindu musicians.

Supported by an ebullient BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Danny Driver is in equally full and exuberant command of his instrument. His confident, crisply embellished readings are stylish, multi-hued, and enlivening nailings of the modernist tone, subtly imbued with the lyricism of the ancient themes. All in all, this is striking music, brilliantly performed.

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