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CD Button Irwin, Drummond; Sheffield, Thantrey; Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland, Ryan. Texts. Delphian DCD34139

Recordings Chisoom Cover 517
Critics Choice Button 1015

IT'S ALWAYS A TREAT when one discovers a composer who, though unheralded, is great. Erik Chisholm (1904–1962), often referred to as “Scotland’s Forgotten Composer,” is my latest such find. Born in Glasgow, Chisholm received training in all aspects of music and was mentored by the famous musicologist and essayist Donald Tovey. Chisholm composed prolifically and was a talented pianist who performed as a concerto soloist. As a conductor, he led the first U.K. performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo and Berlioz’s Troyens. He presented concerts featuring works by such luminaries as Bartók, Hindemith, Szymanowski, Cassella, Schmitt and Sorabji, often performing with these composers. 

Chisholm wrote in a style that combined the twelve-tone method with other types of music, including Highland bagpipe music (piobaireachd). During World War II, Chisholm was a conscientious objector, yet he served in India, where he made intensive studies of Hindustani classical music, finding a way to incorporate the scales of this music into his own work. Subsequently, he accepted the directorship of the South African College of Music and a professorship at the University of Cape Town. On tour, Chisholm and his student musicians gave the London premiere of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. He also wrote a well-regarded book on the operas of Leoš Janáček.

This CD is a live recording of Chisholm’s 1952 opera, Simoon, based on a short play by August Strindberg. It’s the first recording of this haunting work, which the composer never heard. “Simoon” refers in Arabic to a strong, hot, dry wind that usually causes enormous, even blinding, sandstorms. Strindberg’s 1889 play was written when France was experiencing unrest in its colony Algeria. The play is set in a mausoleum mysteriously located in the Algerian desert, where a young woman with occult powers harnesses the elemental force of a simoon as she convinces a lost zouave to will himself to death. It’s a disturbing story that has been compared to Poe. 

Chisholm set an English text, following Strindberg’s play almost line-for-line. There are no set pieces or bona fide arias. Chisholm’s eclectic, truly uncategorizable music is exotic yet deeply rooted in Western traditions. This opera is devoid of “orientalist” clichés that have marred so many attempts by Western composers to depict the Islamic world. Chisholm’s extraordinary orchestration utilizes a small ensemble, but it includes many unusual sounds and instruments. The harmonium writing that accompanies the scene in which the girl hypnotically convinces the zouave to envision his young son’s burial is stunning in its dramatic effect. And the whirling sounds of the two pianos and two wind machines perfectly evoke the storm.

This live recording features a strong cast and orchestra. Soprano Jane Irwin is frightening, seductive and mysterious as Biskra, the young murderess. Irwin began her career as a mezzo; that background proves a great strength, as Chisholm makes demands on the low and high registers, which Irwin meets with aplomb. Tenor Philip Sheffield is strong as Yusuf, who has promised to marry Biskra once she has assassinated the zouave. Baritone Damian Thantrey powerfully depicts the zouave, Guimard. Although Thantrey’s Guimard seems at first rough and battle-toughened, the listener develops sympathy for him—alas, too late for him to be saved. Soprano Charlie Drummond does a fine job in the minor role of an ethereal voice. Ian Ryan leads the orchestra with dynamic intensity and focus.

Just as Strindberg’s play was written at a time of conflict between the French and Algerians, so was Chisholm’s opera. Similarly, the world premiere of the complete opera occurs at a time of terrible conflict between Islamic and Western cultures. I would have been interested to see how stage director Roddy Simpson addressed this in the staging. But the aural effect is magnificent throughout.

Chisholm wrote Simoon as the third opera in his “Murder Trilogy.” I would eagerly welcome the performance and recording of the first two of these operas—preferably by Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland—so that we could experience the entirety of Chisholm’s vision.  —Arlo McKinnon

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