Bantock, perhaps, suffers
from a surfeit of composition. His ‘works-list’
in an earlier edition of Grove extends
to some 10 pages of close-written text.
As one critic says about the composer:
"he suffers from post-Wagnerian
elephantitis and lack of self criticism."
Whether this is a fair analysis is for
others to decide. I personally feel
overwhelmed by the sheer volume and
intellectual reach of Bantock’s music.
I know I will never find the time or
the inclination to do it justice.
The composer had a
taste for the exotic – or perhaps it
is fairer to say the pseudo-exotic.
His devotion to the ‘Orient’ for example
is derived through the works of Fitzgerald
and Southey. His ‘Scottish’ phase resulted
in a now unheard opera The Seal Woman
with libretto written by Margery Kennedy-Fraser.
Of course, all British music enthusiasts
know the fine Hebridean Symphony.
Then there was a flirtation with Dante,
Browning, Shelley and a host of others.
Last but not least there was his deep
interest in the Greek tragedians, including
The present ‘overture’
was published in 1912. It is hardly
a mere overture – but is in fact a major
tone poem. A brief look at Sophocles’
Oedipus at Colonus reveals a
somewhat formless play that lacks a
major plot. However the passing of the
king is of great and sublime beauty.
The Overture is really a meditation
on this passing and the blessing of
the site of his death. Much as I like
Sophocles, I cannot help feeling that
I would rather listen to this great
music ‘absolutely’ than have images
of Anthony Quayle and Juliet Stevenson
from the 1986 TV performance of the
play floating round my mind.
Joseph Holbrooke is
an enigmatic composer. It is fair to
say that at the beginning of the 20th
century he would have been a serious
candidate for fame. Most critics would
have seen him as being in the ‘Top Ten’
of British composers – at least potentially.
Yet, as with Bantock, it is easy to
accuse him of being over-productive
and lacking self-criticism and restraint.
It may well be that Holbrooke created
the reaction against himself with his
outspoken views on music, his massive
operatic projects that required a huge
commitment from producers and performers
and maybe even his apparent wish to
‘Germanize’ himself: he changed the
spelling of his Christian name to ‘Josef’!
It is only in our time
that a reappraisal has begun. I guess
that the operatic cycle based on Welsh
legends will hardly ever be revived.
Yet we are lucky to have a number of
his fine chamber works, his overblown
but quite gorgeous Piano Concerto ‘The
Song of Gwyn ap Nudd’ and a selection
of tone poems. One of the amusing things
about Holbrooke is his idealistic socialist
contention that music ought to be approachable
to the ‘proletariat’ or the Common Man/Woman.
However, apart from his Variations
on Three Blind Mice he wrote little
that would have been of interest to
the average Working Man down at the
Old Bull & Bush! The commitment
required from listeners to his music
is immense and would baffle even the
most battle-hardened of Wagnerians!
Yet, The Birds of
Rhiannon is approachable and quite
beautiful. It is presumed that the tone
poem is related to the cycle of celtic
operas; however it stands on its own.
Arthur Hutchings, in the programme notes,
wisely points out that there is no need
to dwell on the original ‘programme’
of this music in order to be able to
enjoy its ‘beauty and integrity’.
For the dramatic background
to this work I refer readers to Rob
Barnett’s fine Review.
Suffice to say that
this is a well constructed piece of
music that displays Holbrooke's ‘exuberant
versatility’ and his considerable skill
at creating atmospheric musical pictures
with the resources of a large orchestra.
I have written extensively
about the Cyril Rootham’s Symphony
No.1 elsewhere in the pages
of MusicWeb. However there are three
things I want to emphasis here. Firstly,
this is a great symphony: in my essay
about this work I downplayed its significance.
I suggested that it was not ‘earth shattering’
like Elgar's Second or RVW’s
Fourth. However, listening to
this work again for my review, I feel
that its status should be raised a little
higher! If one considers the quality
of the themes, the distinctive orchestration
and the critical balance between modernity
and romanticism, it must be one of the
greatest of the unsung works of the
1930s. Rob Barnett, in his review, insists
that Rootham is responding to "matters
as weighty and gripping" as Arthur
Bliss had. Of course it is easy to pick
up allusions to the Colour Symphony
at many points in this present work.
However Mr Barnett also compares moments
in this Symphony to Holst, Vaughan
Williams and Jack Moeran. I do not for
one moment imagine that Rootham was
parodying or copying anyone – it is
just that certain moods and styles were
in the air. However, even a superficial
hearing of this work reveals one that
ought to be regarded as one of the big
hitters of the mid-century group of
Secondly, it is fair
to say that Rootham is under-represented
in the CD stakes. The Crotchet database
notes only three recordings – including
this one. There are in sum total four
works available from this composer’s
A number of years ago EMI produced a
fine CD of choral and orchestral music
including the Celtic Twilight ‘The
Stolen Child’ and a wonderful ‘For
the Fallen.’ I have an old cassette
tape of a recording which is on its
last legs. I hope and pray that EMI
will re-release it very soon.
And thirdly, what does
it say about one of our great Symphonists?
I guess that only one in a thousand
music listeners will have heard of Cyril
Rootham in the first place. An even
smaller proportion will know this fine
Symphony. I cannot help feeling
that as a nation we have a cavalier
attitude to our composers (and artists
and poets too!) but I suppose if 17%
of school children think that Winston
Churchill is an insurance company,
what chance of them understanding the
British Symphonic Tradition!
This CD is great value
for money. These are three works that
ought to be in the public domain - two
fine tone poems and a great Symphony.
As usual with Lyrita the sound quality
is superb, the playing totally inspiring,
the programme notes are helpful and
the repertoire is totally challenging
– and perhaps even essential.
see also review