Brought Back to Life – Erik Chisholm’s Violin Concerto

There’s a long way to go yet in our mission to bring Erik Chisholm’s music back into the living world of performance. So many works still to be typeset, printed and made available to musicians, so many pieces still to be recorded. But a major staging post in the Trust’s long journey was reached on April 23rd when the Violin Concerto was played for the first time since 1952 and for only the third time since its composition in 1950.

The concerto is one of Chisholm’s ‘Hindustani’ works, strongly influenced (like the 2nd Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra and Simoon) by Indian classical music. It was premiered in Cape Town by Szymon Goldberg in 1952 and then given its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival later that year. On that occasion in the Usher Hall the soloist was Max Rostal and the orchestra was the BBC Scottish, conducted by Ian Whyte. The concerto is technically very challenging for both soloist and orchestra and that may have something to do with the fact that neither Goldberg or Rostal performed it again. At any rate, the Trust has been trying for some time to find a way of bringing it back to life.

Our hopes for a commercial CD remain unfulfilled so far, but a request to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to at least consider doing it in concert was received positively. For a while it seemed that there was little likelihood of them finding time to do it before 2016 but then at short notice they found they were able to schedule it in one of their afternoon concerts, recorded for later broadcast, at Glasgow City Hall. The brilliant young violinist Matthew Trusler was engaged with only six weeks or so to learn a complex and difficult piece and Michael Collins was asked to conduct. There was a mad scramble to find performing material.

In the end (after a fair amount of stress on the part of both performers and EC Trustees!) the performance was a triumph and a major, forgotten piece by Chisholm emerged into the sunlight like a magnificently coloured butterfly from its chrysalis. As with the 2nd Piano Concerto a heady mix of dreamy exoticism and vital energy made for an absorbing half hour of vintage Chisholm. At the first performance in Cape Town, Chisholm and Goldberg had decided to reverse the original order of movements so that the concerto ended with the exquisitely beautiful slow movement rather than the fugal finale. Why they did this is not clear, but perhaps it was something to do with the technical challenge of keeping soloist and orchestra together in the fast and furious finale with its syncopated hints of jazz. Without a virtuoso orchestra at their disposal the fugue might have been more of a damp squib than the exciting climax that Chisholm wanted.  On this occasion there was no such problem and the original order of the movements was totally vindicated in a hair-raising rendition of the finale.  It was a truly moving occasion, and The Herald’s music critic Kate Molleson gave it as warm a welcome as we could wish for:

On June 8 it will be 50 years since the death of Erik Chisholm — pianist, organist, conductor, concert promoter, musicologist, educator, Scotland’s greatest 20th century composer and a name too rarely heard, even in his home country. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is doing its bit for Chisholm’s weirdly neglected legacy: it programmed the Second Piano Concerto last year and now the Violin Concerto, with Michael Collins conducting and Matthew Trusler as eloquent soloist.

Composed in 1950 when Chisholm had left Scotland to become head of music at the University of Cape Town, this four-movement, 25 minute score is a searing, mystical, restless, beguilingly atmospheric kind of a work. It begins uneasy and searching, lines spinning out from wan cellos and basses before the solo violin takes up a brittle, silvery theme. Later, a meandering cadenza deals in the staccato rhythms of an Indian raga and the vibrant, earthy orchestration smacks of Bartok or Prokofiev. The last movement’s pert, jumpy fugue has something of Shostakovich about its acerbic grimace, but the final mix is all Chisholm. Trusler attacked the solo part with gusto and lyricism, and I’d love to hear the BBCSSO really let loose on the bolder passages in the way this orchestra does with music it knows well. (The Herald, April 24, 2015)

The April 23rd concert will be broadcast in ‘Afternoon on 3′ on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday, June 2nd. The programme begins at 2pm and the Violin Concerto will be the second item, beginning at about 2.25 pm.