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Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Simoon - opera in one act (1952) [48:35]
Jane Irwin (soprano) - Biskra; Charlie Drummond (soprano) - Voice; Philip Sheffield (tenor) - Yusuf; Damian Thantrey (baritone) - Guimard
Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland/Ian Ryan
rec. live, 8 June 2015, Western Baths, Glasgow
DELPHIAN DCD34139 [48:35]

"Shabby little shocker" was the albatross hung around the neck of Puccini's Tosca. It doesn't seem to have done that work any harm. In any event I am not sure how 'little' works with that full-stretch three-act opera. As for 'shabby' and 'shocker' these tend to attach to plot, subject matter and personalities and are not to be taken as decrying the music in any particular case. At that level the phrase is a better fit for a whole panoply of "one-acters" including Delius's Margot la Rouge, Tomasi's Le Silence de la Mer and Bartˇk's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the latter a work that Erik Chisholm conducted for its UK premiere in London in 1957. The plotline for Chisholm's Simoon (a scarifying dust-laden desert wind sometimes shown as 'Simoom'), alongside its single- act companions (Dark Sonnet and The Pardoner's Tale), is apt to this example of journalese headline.

Crudely compressed (by me), the plot runs as follows: Biskra, obsessed by French legionaries who have killed an Arabian guide, will not be accepted by her lover, Yusuf until she has exacted murderous revenge. Guimard is the luckless legionnaire lost in the Algerian desert in the dust-storm. Biskra convinces Guimard that all he reveres, loves and believes in is false or has betrayed him. He sinks down dead. At last Biskra gives herself to Yusuf as the wind howls around the couple.

Sue Baxendale was the producer of the opera for this, its Glasgow orchestral premiere as recorded by Delphian. She is also the author of the synopsis and played the French horn in the 27-player orchestra. John Purser, the author of the Chisholm study, sets the scene and provides the libretto, which is printed as sung in the spick and span booklet. The words are by August Strindberg having been translated by Edwin Bj÷rkman.

Not the very last word in originality, the music is still striking and it is put to very telling use. The orchestral prelude is rendered in virtuoso style with the language adopted standing between Sibelius (Tapiola and The Tempest) and Szymanowski at his most verdantly complex. The whirling simoon - not far short of a scream orchestrated for instruments - also stands as a psychological symbol: a drowning undertow. The singing from the vocal cast depends on the contours of speech rather than song. The orchestra remains a resolutely independent additional 'voice' around the characters. The instrumental parts feature provocative and enriching elements including two pianos, harmonium and celesta. The vocal style straddles Janßček (Chisholm's pioneering study of that composer's operas is well worth reading) and Berg. Chisholm adds spoken sections for the singers but the predominance lies with sung activity.

The composer's fascination with Indian music is reflected in Biskra's ululating vocal part in the third section of scene 2 (tr. 9), and elsewhere in his Hindustani Piano Concerto No. 2. It's almost as strong a presence as that enjoyed in John Foulds' music. It's a vivid score - listen to the line of trumpeting and drumming in "Can you hear the drums?" as Biskra, through force of personality, drives Guimard to his death. Centre-stage and centre-plot is Biskra whose Lady Macbeth role is taken in full-on operatic combustion by Jane Irwin. Her colleagues Philip Sheffield (Yusuf) and Damian Thantrey (Guimard) impress but are subsidiary characters in the face of Biskra's driven personality. The opera ends in a glistening yet passive downbeat.

This encouragingly good disc joins the series of CDs (including Hyperion's productions of the Violin Concerto and Piano Concertos) which are gradually pushing back the curtains to reveal yet more of Chisholm's achievement. His music is as distinctive as that of other major seemingly 'awkward' figures (Havergal Brian, John Foulds, Cecil Gray and R.S. Coke) who have emerged or may well emerge after years of neglect. On this showing more Chisholm is likely to be welcome and welcomed.

Rob Barnett



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