Ian Ryan conducts Chisholm’s Simoon

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Chisholm
LABELS: Delphian
ALBUM TITLE: Chisholm
WORKS: Simoon
PERFORMER: Jane Irwin, Philip Sheffield, Damian Thantrey, Charlie Drummond; Music Co-OPERAtive/Ian Ryan
CATALOGUE NO: DCD34139

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Erik Chisholm’s mildly modernist idiom meant that his music never gained much traction in his native Scotland, before his emigration to South Africa in 1946. There he headed Cape Town University’s music department, including its opera school, which meant that his own works had a decent chance of getting performed. Simoon never was, except in a piano version; and this concert performance, recorded live in Glasgow in 2015, was the opera’s true world premiere. 

The plot, based on a Strindberg play, is set in colonial Algeria, where the hot simoon desert wind notoriously deranges the occupying French troops. One of them, Guimard, strays into the home of local girl Biskra, who sets out to avenge the troops’ murder of a local guide by further unhinging Guimard’s mind with her personal brand of black-arts psychology; eventually, when she shows him a skull, Guimard imagines that this is his dead self, and indeed does die.

Chisholm’s Berg-and-Bartók-influenced idiom, strikingly coloured by the exotic scales encountered during his wartime work in India, depicts the story with virtuoso pace and inventiveness. The swirling chromaticism depicting the simoon wind, while an obvious device, is brilliantly handled nonetheless; and the intervening episodes offer a remarkable range of incident and colour, with a harmonium supplying a strange continuum of otherworldly sound.

Apart from a few minor live-performance smudges, the playing, singing and conducting are all excellent; Jane Irwin rises impressively to the challenge of the wide soprano-to-mezzo range of Biskra’s part, with Damian Thantrey’s Guimard equally secure and accurate.

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Malcolm Hayes