Composer, pianist, conductor, concert promoter and educator Erik Chisholm never had the attention he deserved, not at home in Scotland or abroad, not during his lifetime (1904 65) or since. He was dubiously nicknamed McBartók – pretty naff, but at least it acknowledges his friendship with the Hungarian composer and his own comparable unflinching blend of modernism, earthiness and folk idioms.
It took until June 2016 for the full version of Chisholm’s chamber opera Simoon to get its premiere. Written in the early 1950s, based on a Strindberg play and scored for three soloists and small ensemble, it’s the last in a triptych of operatic thrillers called ‘Murder in Three Keys’. Chisholm loved film noir – as a child he filmed little pastiches of German expressionism on a Pathé Baby Cine Camera – and he was surely drawn to the Strindberg for its tense, acerbic narrative. The plot is brutal. An Algerian woman, a devout Muslim, seeks revenge on a French legionnaire for the murder of her lover. Chisholm was a socialist writing against the backdrop of Charles de Gaulle and the Franco-Algerian crisis; the political significance will not have escaped him.
Until last year Simoon had only ever been performed with a piano reduction but that can’t have done justice to its teemingly inventive thicket of an ensemble score. Harmonium, celesta, tubular bells, four-handed piano, spooky wind machine – this is rich and potently atmospheric tone-painting. The vocal lines are less brilliant, done in a wan sort of expressionism, but Jane Irwin gives a fearless performance as Biskra, Damian Thantrey is bruised and swaggering as Guimard and Philip Sheffield is a sensitive Yusuf. These are the same forces that gave the premiere: Ian Ryan conducting Music Co OPERAtive Scotland, a collective of Scottish Opera’s freelance orchestral players who clinch the taught, simmering angularity as well as the glittering refinement of Chisholm’s ensemble-writing.