CHISHOLM: Symphony No. 2 "Ossian."(BBC Concert Orch/Martin Yates, cond.). HOLD: The Unreturning Spring, Op. 3.(Alish Tynan, soprano; Roderick Williams, baritone; BBC Concert Orch/Martin Yates, cond.). FOGG: Sea-Sheen, an Idyll, op. 17.(BBC Concert rch/Gavin Sutherland, cond.). Merok (BBC Concert Orch/Vernon Handley, cond.).
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7196 (F) (DDD) TT: 63:29.
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British byways. Lewis Foreman and Dutton continue to bring to light composers from Great Britain you probably have never heard of. So far, I count Richard Arnell as the most notable discovery, a writer of big, passionate symphonies, but even more there have been first meetings that make me look forward to further revelations. Chisholm, Hold, and Fogg -- which sound like a firm of bespoke tailors -- are all new to me, after nearly fifty years of passionately collecting British music.

Erik Chisholm (1904-65), with Ronald Stevenson the two most distinguished Scottish composers between Mackenzie and MacMillan, was basically a man of the Left, not only during the Thirties, but well into the Fifties. Nevertheless, he wound up as head of the South African College of Music in Cape Town. He opposed apartheid and that and a couple of trips to the Soviet Union put him on the security police's "subversives" list. Indeed, security forces broke into and tore up his study as they searched for incriminating evidence. Nevertheless, Chisholm, a student of Tovey, hardly ever got political in his music. He championed "hard" Modernists like Bartók and Schoenberg. Lewis Foreman contends that Chisholm's politics interfered with performances of his music. But at least two leftists -- Britten and Tippett -- came into their own and enjoyed many performances after World War II. Nevertheless, they based themselves in England, while Chisholm had moved to South Africa. I suspect it was more a case of "out of sight, out of mind," as well as a swing of musical fashion.

The symphony was never performed as such during Chisholm's life. Part of the first movement became a separate little tone poem. Much of it found brief life as a ballet. We can blame Chisholm for part of this. The symphony, in three formal movements, nevertheless falls into six distinct parts, with the first movement divided in two and the last in three. Although Chisholm treats us to many interesting scenic views along the way, we miss a compelling argument from beginning to end, although none of the six sections rambles.

Despite Chisholm's affinity for difficult Modernism, his own music rides on slightly more comfortable tracks. I found myself most arrested, I think, by the abstraction of Scottish folk elements in the symphony. The first part of the opening movement treads slowly, but purposefully (something like a French overture) in Celtic rhythm -- a taut elaboration of the opening measures. The sound of bagpipe chanters seems never far away, and the second part of the movement (subtitled "A Celtic Wonder-Tale") takes as its main idea running skirls. Underneath, especially in the orchestration, one hears traces of Bartók's bagpipe music. The second movement ("Scherzo-Toccata") takes off from the early Stravinsky ballets, Petrushka especially, or perhaps similar movements in Shostakovich. Although Chisholm shows himself as one of the most Continentally-aware of British composers, the symphony in its essence doesn't jar with the British symphonies of its time. It may look toward the Continent, but it is not of the Continent, as one might say of a Vaughan Williams symphony. Although its idiom differs, you have no difficulty placing it side by side with the Walton First, the Bax Third, or the Moeran g-minor.

The final movement impressed me the most. Despite its three sections -- distinguished mainly by different rhythms, tempi, and primary themes -- it coheres the best, with the characteristic themes of earlier sections showing up in later ones. The movement proceeds along a giant arc. It begins with a slow introduction, moves to an animated middle, and winds down with an elegiac epilogue. It's also the most "British" of the movements, with the occasional Scottish snap, all the way down to its ending on a series of Vaughan-Williams-y "magic chords."

Eric Fogg (1903-39) led a short but interesting life. A student of Bantock, he became involved with both music and children's programming on the BBC. In fact, he was one of the early BBC "uncles." A man of sudden mood shifts, he fell under a tube train the day before his second marriage. Pushed? Fell? Jumped? The coroner returned an open verdict. He died the year Chisholm completed his second symphony. Fogg's best piece seems to be his 1930 bassoon concerto, to judge by the high praise from reviewers of a recent CD (available on ASV White Line 2132). The bulk of his output seems to consist of piano morceaux, songs, and short orchestral pieces.

Sea-Sheen, first performed in 1919, exemplifies a kind of non-Debussyan Impressionism promulgated by composers like Delius, early Bridge, and, of course, Bantock. It's pleasant, but little more. The most notable thing about it is Fogg's age (16) and his control over orchestration. Merok, a brief set of variations on a Norwegian folk-song, comes from 1934. Again, the Delian influence comes through -- think Brigg Fair -- and the impulse of pretty pictorialism remains much the same, but the musical thought has deepened considerably. Full of wonderful solo opportunities for the principal winds, this piece will haunt you, as the best of Delius does.

Trevor Hold (1939-2004), poet and composer, is known for his song cycles. On the basis of The Unreturning Spring, I consider him a songwriter at the level of Britten. The influence of Britten, particularly of the later cycles like Nocturne, shows up in Hold, although the strongest link of Hold's Unreturning Spring runs to Britten's Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, written two years after. Go figure
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Hold's cycle uses poems by James Farrar, killed in action during World War II. Farrar is a poet on the lookout for the perfect word and who seeks to overwhelm you by understatement. A breeze whispers through the "susurrant trees." An airman's wife searches the sky for her husband's take-off and return:

. . . I understand
How much of life is evening, engine-sound
And being crucified alone at night.

The crucifixion points two ways: to the waiting, anxious wife and, through the shape of the plane overhead, to the husband.

Hold's music has something of the North Atlantic gloom in it, although he comes from Northampton and lived much of his life in the East Midlands. Like Britten's, Hold's music has elegance and precision, as well as a great sensitivity to the movement and structure of poetry. There's not really a hummable tune in the cycle, but that doesn't matter. The songs capture not only the shifts of the poetry without flying apart, but also the emotional landscape. They get under your skin. Furthermore, Hold somehow binds all the songs together. I suspect this comes down to less a matter of structural links than to a sure dramatic instinct. I don't hesitate to place this cycle at the level of Britten's bests.

All the performances are quite fine, with Tynan, Williams, and Yates outstanding in the Hold, and Vernon Handley leads an exquisite reading of Fogg's Merok.


S.G.S. (April 2008)