Monday 9 January 2017

Intense & visceral: first recording of Erik Chisholm's Simoon

Erik Chisholm Simoon; Jane Irwin, Damian Thantrey, Philip Sheffield, Charlie Drummond, Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland, Ian Ryan; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 5 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A first recording for a dramatically intense opera from Scotland's forgotten composer

The music of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm still has not received the coverage which it deserves, particularly when it comes to recordings of his major works. So this new disc from Delphian is more than welcome. Here we have the first recording of Chisholm's 1953 opera Simoon based on a text by August Strindberg (translated into English by the Swedish-American journalist Edwin Björkman) performed by Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland, conductor Ian Ryan with Jane Irwin as Biskra, Philip Sheffield as Yusuf, Damian Thantrey as Guimard and Charlie Drummond as a voice.

Erik Chisholm's achievements were remarkable. Born into relatively humble circumstances he was only able to study music at Edinburgh University under Sir Donald Tovey thanks to a special exemption owing to the fact that Chisholm had no School Leaving Certificate. As musical director of Glasgow Grand Opera Society he conducted the the British premieres of Mozart's Idomeneo and Berlioz's Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict in the 1930s as well as bringing contemporary composers like Bartók, Hindemith, Szymanowski, Bax, Walton, and Medtner to Scotland and helping found a ballet company and composing. Yet he failed to achieve a musical post of significance in Scotland and in 1946 he emigrated to South Africa to take up the post of Chair of Music at Cape Town University, where he remained until he died. It was in South Africa that Chisholm finally had the resources to write opera, 11 in all.

Simoon, written in 1953, is a one-act opera which Chisholm intended as part of a three-act trilogy, Murder in Three Keys. Simoon was premiered in New York in 1954 as part of the Murder in Three Keys Trilogy, which enjoyed a six-week season. The performances were just with piano accompaniment, and Chisholm never heard the opera. The recording, made live, is based on staged performances which took place in Glasgow in June 2015.

It is a short, intense piece.
In Algeria in the 1880s, Ali, an Arabian guide has been murdered. Biskra swears to avenge his death using the madness which comes over the Europeans during the Algerian Simoon. Thus the opera is divided into three sections, first Biskra (Jane Irwin) and her lover Yusuf (Philip Sheffield), who will refrain from embracing until she succeeds. Then Biskra and Guimard (Damian Thantrey), the Frenchman responsible for Ali's death and finally an short but ecstatic duet for Biskra and Yusuf after Guimard's death. The opera lasts near 50 minutes, of which 30 minutes is taken up with the scene between Biskra and Guimard when she uses a combination of magic and psychological torture on him.

The work is scored for a small orchestra (under 30 players) but Chisholm uses a variety of instruments to bring a wide range of colour (including glockenspiece, xylophone, tubular bells, gong, pianos, wind machine and harmonium). The orchestra plays an important role on the drama, and the intensity and range of Chisholm's writing is extraordinary, as is his skill with orchestral colour. Whilst in Scotland, Chisholm acquired the nick-name 'MacBartok' and in this work Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle is certainly not far away. Chisholm was also interested in Hindu music, and the influence of this can be felt sometimes here too.

His vocal writing is intense and dramatic, but not always grateful and the work does rely on the combination of voice and orchestra to make its full effect. Jane Irwin makes a dramatic and wonderfully implacable Biskra, with Damian Thantrey as a firm-voiced virile Guimard who finally succumbs to Biskra's psychological torture. I could have wished for a little more freedom in Philip Sheffield's voice, his Yusuf sound somewhat too dry-voiced but the disc was recorded live and this must be taken into account.

With such a complex score, the live recording brings out a remarkable amount of detail in the music and the live ambience helps, I think, the visceral buzz of the music. The musicians of Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland under Ian Ryan make thrilling work of Chisholm's music.

The music is nothing like we would expect from a British composer of the 1950s, there is no hint of the English pastoral school, nor can we hear much relating to Arnold, Rawsthorne or Britten. Chisholm's style is firmly European-centric in a way that few composers were (Frank Bridge is one of the few others who come to mind, though stylistically very different).

In a way, it is a very bracing piece and I wonder what the whole trilogy would be like. This is not an easy piece, and I think it would benefit from being seen as well as heard. But it is a welcome addition to the catalogue and makes us realise what we are missing without Erik Chisholm's music. It also makes me wonder, yet again, why Chisholm's music is so neglected and why we don't see any of his 11 operas regularly on the UK stage.

Erik Chisholm (1904-1965) - Simoon
Biskra - Jane Irwin
Guimard - Damian Thantrey
Yussuf - Philip Sheffield
Voice - Charlie Drummond
Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland
Ian Ryan (conductor)
Recorded live on 8 June 2015 at Western Baths, Glasgow
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