First published in The Herald on 24 April, 2015
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 rest of the programme paid tribute to Chisholm the concert promoter, opening with the rather long ballet music from Mozart’s Idomeneo (rather incredibly, Chisholm conducted the opera’s British premiere with the Glasgow Grand Opera Society in 1934) and closing with Bartok’s Second Suite (Chisholm befriended Bartok and invited him to perform in Glasgow repeatedly). Collins, a clarinettist-turned-conductor, brought out a beautiful bloom in melodies but paid less attention to details like tidy chords and strong accompaniments.