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Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 31 August, 1-2 September 2020, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34259 [67:50]

This struck me as an intriguing disc, containing songs completely unknown to me by a composer of whose music I am shamefully ignorant. Recalling that Rob Barnett and other colleagues have praised Erik Chisholm’s music in the past, I thought the songs would be well worth investigating; and so it proved. In any case, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by a musician who carved out a highly individual career for himself, not only as a composer but also as a performer. As John Purser reminded me in his valuable booklet essay, Chisholm was a seriously good pianist, good enough to let Scotland hear for the first time both Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Bartók’s First Piano Concerto. He was equally enterprising as a conductor, and the man who was responsible for the British premiere of Les Troyens is bound to get respect from me. In search of more rewarding opportunities than were coming his way in Scotland, he took the post of Professor of Music at Cape Town University after the Second World War and he remained in Cape Town for the rest of his life.

However, he never forgot his Scottish roots, at least in his song-writing. The documentation accompanying these songs, though as comprehensive as always with a Delphian release, doesn’t tell us when the individual songs were composed – and it may be that this information isn’t readily available. So, I don’t know how many of these songs were composed in South Africa. However, we can date the Poems of Love to the early 1960s and those definitely contain more than a whiff of the heather.

The author of the poems which Chisholm set in Poems of Love was Lillias Scott, who became his second wife towards the end of his life. The other poet represented significantly here is William Souter (1898-1943). The Delphian collection, curated, I suspect, by Iain Burnside, contains a generous sprinkling of other Scots texts, including several that are traditional. But it wasn’t just in Scots literature that Chisholm found inspiration; the country’s traditional music was important to him as well. John Purser points out that Chisholm set a great deal of store by Patrick MacDonald’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs, which I believe was published in 1784. He used several of these old tunes, including in his Souter settings.

The chosen songs are well contrasted. Several of them are humorous. The Prodigy, a Souter setting, is a good example. Here, Nicky Spence really enters into the spirit of words and music. A rather different style of humour is on display in Glances, which John Purser aptly sums up as “highly suggestive and harmonically coquettish”. Mhairi Lawson and Iain Burnside deliver this with a definite twinkle in the eye. Cock-Robin involves all three singers: they despatch it in a most entertaining fashion and characterise the song very well.

There are also a few dramatic songs in the collection. Cradle-Croon is, as John Purser says a setting of “powerful dark foreboding”. Michael Mofidian is an ideal choice to sing this song. To him is also allocated Sixty Cubic Feet, a poem by Randall Swingler (1909-1967) which follows a young man’s life story from childhood through to premature death as a soldier. The words constitute a strong social message which clearly struck a chord with Chisholm; it drew from him dark, highly-charged music. Though the idiom is completely different, I was put in mind of the ambience of Mahler’s military songs. Listen out for the sardonic references in the piano part to Land of Hope and Glory and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Mofidian and Burnside make a fine job of this arresting song.

Mofidian also sings The Chailleach - My Spiteful Old Woman, which satirises old women. (We learn from the booklet that Chailleach is the Gaelic word for ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’.) Surprisingly, a few tracks later the song reappears in a Russian translation, also sung by Mofidian. I presume the Russian version came second; why was it made, I wonder?

Many of this collection are beautiful, plaintive songs and I found these consistently attractive. Dirge for Summer, a Souter setting to a MacDonald tune, is dark and melancholy, with a very spare piano accompaniment. Michael Mofidian sings it very well. Diarmait's Sleep, sung by Mhairi Lawson, is a touching lullaby to a sleeping lover. This is beautifully performed, as is Lament, which is all the more affecting on account of the restraint of the setting. Right at the end of the programme Ms Lawson gives us Home Sickness. This is very beautiful. Chisholm’s setting features a very plaintive vocal line and an extremely subtle piano part, which is confined exclusively to the treble.

The centrepiece of the programme is Poems of Love, a collection of songs which Chisholm wrote to poems by Lillias Scott. They were subsequently married; I’m unsure when that happened but John Purser says that the songs were written “when they fell in love”. Remarkably, it seems that one of the songs, ‘Love's Reward’ was composed on 18 March 1962, as Chisholm wrote, “1 hour after receiving the poem”. These songs are shared out among the three singers and it’s Nicky Spence who gives us ‘Love's Reward’. I like both song and performance very much. The melodic line is captivating – Spence is most expressive – as is the piano part. ‘Skreigh o' Day’ (Crack of Dawn) is an equally lovely creation. This time it’s Mhairi Lawson to whom the song is entrusted; she’s ideally cast. I love the unexpected modulation in the music three lines from the end of the poem. ‘Fragment (Lament)’, sung by Michael Mofidian is also beautiful, but the beauty is darker than in ‘Skreigh o' Day’. That’s the case also with ‘Prayer’. Here, Mofidian and Burnside get the solemnity just right. The penultimate song, ‘Innocence’ has Ms Lawson back in front of the microphone. This may well be my favourite among the set; its simple eloquence touches the heart and the fragile delicacy of Mhairi Lawson’s singing is just right.

As you may have gathered, I found this a most rewarding collection. The songs themselves are all very fine. The melodic basis is strong and very attractive and when Chisholm uses a traditional melody, I love the way he dresses it, effectively but without undue ostentation, in twentieth century raiment. Although one or two songs have deliberately spare accompaniments – and very effectively so - elsewhere the piano parts are clearly the work of someone who was a highly accomplished pianist; I love, for example, the inventive piano skirls in Another Incitement for the Gaels which add significantly to the atmosphere. Chisholm’s piano parts frequently take unexpected turns, which always keep the listener on his or her toes. One further example is the very first song. This is G K Chesterton’s poem The Donkey, an unusual choice to set to music. Nicky Spence sings it with real imagination. However, I’ve written in my notes that, meaning no disrespect to him, the piano part is even more interesting than the vocal line.

Mind you, I’m not surprised that the piano part to The Donkey sounds interesting. The piano writing in all 36 of the songs on this CD is marvellously brought to life by Iain Burnside. He plays with flair and imagination and even when Chisholm deliberately scales back the piano writing to bare bones Burnside holds our interest. He’s both a great support and an admirable foil to his trio of singers. I have heard Nicky Spence many times before but the voices of Mhairi Lawson and Michael Mofidian were discoveries for me. All three singers impressed me very much. Their voices sound extremely pleasing and the clarity of voice and of diction that each of them brings to their respective performances is very welcome. Of course, it helps enormously that all three are Scots; their delivery of the songs in the Scots language sounds completely authentic.

Paul Baxter has recorded the performers most successfully. Voices and piano register with ideal clarity and the balance between each singer and the piano is expertly achieved. As usual, the standard of Delphian’s documentation is extremely high. John Purser is a Chisholm expert and his booklet essay is as enjoyable to read as it is informative. All the texts are printed and my only very slight quibble is that where the English meaning of Scots words is supplied at the end of poems the font is minute.

Erik Chisholm’s songs deserves to be much better known. This excellent and important disc should win them many new admirers.

John Quinn

Previous review: John France

The Donkey (Twelve Songs, No. 11) [2:09]
The Bee (Twelve Songs, No. 9) [0:59]
Snail, snail, shoot out your horn [0:58]
The Fairies [0:59]
Cradle-Croon [1:56]
The Prodigy [1:41]
Summer Song [1:19]
The Braw Plum [0:48]
The Three Worthies [1:37]
Dirge for Summer [2:27]
Love's Reward (Poems of Love, No. 1) [1:46]
Johnnie Logie (Poems of Love, No. 2) [1:16]
Skreigh o' Day (Poems of Love, No. 3) [1:49]
Fragment (Lament) (Poems of Love, No. 4) [1:45]
Prayer (Poems of Love, No. 5) [1:37]
Innocence (Poems of Love, No. 6) [2:01]
Hert's Sang (Poems of Love, No. 7) [2:00]
Oiséan's Song [3:36]
Glances [1:36]
Sixty Cubic Feet [3:51]
The Offending Eye [1:28]
Another Incitement for the Gaels [1:44]
Diarmait's Sleep [2:25]
Fiddler's Bidding [0:46]
The Barnyards o' Delgaty [1:431
Lament [1:33]
There's a fine braw thistle [3:57]
The Chailleach - My Spiteful Old Woman [1:57]
Regrets [2:03]
Dan Liughair (A Tale of Lear) [2:28]
Hame [1:14]
Cock-Robin [1:09]
The Chailleach - Шейла, моя злая жена [2:05]
The Mermaid's Song [3:45]
To his love whom he has Kissed against her Will [1:25]
Home Sickness [1:41]

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