Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
The Pit and the Pendulum
: Fantasie for Orchestra, op.126 (1929) [9:46]
Cello Concerto op.103, Cambrian (1936) [28:12]
Symphony No.4 in B minor, op.95 Homage to Schubert (1928) [30:55]
Pandora: ballet movement (1920) [6:04]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/George Vass (op.126; op.95)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/George Vass (op.103; Pandora)
rec. The Friary, Liverpool, 6 April 2010 (op.126; op.95); RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, May 2010 (op.103; Pandora)
World premiere recordings of all except symphony
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7251 [74:57]
See also further review of this disc
This is a most welcome disc of music by Joseph Holbrooke from the enterprising Dutton label whose championing of music from lesser-known English composers has been and continues to be outstanding. Every new disc from Dutton is an exciting experience that rarely disappoints both with their choice of rare repertoire and the recording quality. I have thirty or so Dutton discs that all fall into this exploratory category that I have all enjoyed. Recently I have been especially delighted with the: Rootham, Holbrooke, Walford Davies and Benjamin Violin Sonatas, Creith, Arnell and Pitfield Violin Concertos, W.H. Bell and Stanley Bate Viola Concertos and the series of discs featuring Richard Arnell and Stanley Bate orchestral works. There are a handful of discs available of Holbrooke’s music. I have especially enjoyed the disc of Holbrooke’s chamber music recorded by the Rasumovsky Quartet with Richard Hosford (clarinet) in 2002 from Dutton on CDLX 7124.
Those active in England in the final years of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth century tend to fall into three main camps. There were a substantial number of budding composers who studied at the Royal College of Music most notably under Stanford and also Parry. I think of them as the ‘Stanford Group’ such as: Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Bliss, Haydn Wood, Howells, Moeran, Gurney, Stokowski and a considerable number of others. At the Royal Academy of Music there were also several fledgling composers who thrived there under the influence of professor of composition Frederick Corder. This group could be described as the ‘Corder Group’ notably: Sir Arnold Bax, York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, Sir Granville Bantock and the featured composer of this disc Joseph Holbrooke. There was also a third smaller group who studied in Germany at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt known as the ‘Frankfurt Gang’ who comprised Percy Grainger; Norman O’Neill; Roger Quilter; Cyril Scott and Balfour Gardiner.
During a period when music in England was breaking out from its Victorian dryness the London-born Holbrooke’s career began so splendidly. The young man’s The Raven (1903) inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem was well regarded by many music writers. The composer and music writer Julius Harrison said of Holbrooke’s score, “there are moments of inspiration and power” (‘The Musical Companion’, Edited A.L. Bacharach Book II. ‘The Orchestra and Orchestral Music’ by Julius Harrison ‘Orchestral Music of Many Kinds’ ‘Programme Music’ pg. 275 Victor Gollancz Ltd., London (1934)).
The opening work on the disc is The Pit and the Pendulum: a Fantasie for Orchestra, op.126. Completed in 1929 this tone-poem is based on the short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. It seems that the score is presented in four sections with titles serving as guides to Poe’s story of the suffering endured by a prisoner during the Spanish Inquisition. Significantly powerful and dark this is sumptuous writing by Holbrook with several angry doom-laden climaxes. I was struck by the ecstatic writing for the strings and woodwind. At times I could hear shades of the music of Wagner; Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.
It is good to have another cello concerto from an English composer in the repertoire. It is titled ‘Cambrian reflecting the interest Holbrooke held for all things Welsh. It was dedicated to Elisabeth the Countess Orloff-Davidoff who was the newly married daughter of Holbrooke’s patron Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis the 8th Baron Howard de Walden. Maybe the dedication was intended to commemorate the wedding of Countess Elisabeth who played the cello? The opening movement is a wild, brooding and often pleading Andantino punctuated with passages of mystery and calm. The cadenza at 6:35-7:53 is most skilfully executed by the impeccable Raphael Wallfisch. A shimmering nocturnal feel suffuses the slow movement, a mood-painting evocative of a star-filled sky on a cool and crisp winter’s night. For me the finest movement is the scurrying and darting Finale containing appealing music of zestful energy with an impressive valedictory climax.

The three movement Symphony No.4 in B minorHomage to Schubert has its origins as an entrant in the 1927 Schubert Competition. It seems that Holbrooke rewrote the symphony in 1933 and further revised the score with a new finale prior to a performance in 1943. If rather lumbering the opening movement does contain several attractive passages in the spirit of Schubert. The movement ends with a climax of significant proportions almost out of balance with the rest of the material that has gone before. Throughout I felt that the slow movement displayed suggestions of the sound-worlds of Delius and Debussy. Through the mainly dense string writing shine prominent parts for solo woodwind almost in the manner of birdsong. At 4:25 and 5:11 the brass vividly appear out of the mists. The concluding movement is an eclectic mix of styles. At times it felt evocative of the music of Stanford, Parry, Niels Gade and Rachmaninov. In many respects the lush string-laden music reminded me of the central movement albeit with a slightly quicker pace. The exciting Finale, an Allegro provides a vigorously buoyant conclusion.
The final work on the set is an orchestral waltz movement marked Lento cantabile - Con grazia from the ballet Pandora (or Pandora’s Box) completed in 1920. Short-lived, the ballet staged by Marianne Wilson at the Kingsway Hall, London in 1921 was reported in the December 1921 edition of Musical Opinion. My initial impression of Pandora was how much the score reminded me of the Concert Waltz from Geoffrey Toye’s ballet The Haunted Ballroom completed over a decade later in 1934. There are some magical moments in Pandora, a score infused with attractive melody and notable for the shimmering strings.
For an enterprising label such as Dutton there is still a considerable number of mainly English composers whose music is virtually unknown or could be investigated more fully. Many of them formed part of ‘Stanford’s circle’, however, it is not possible to obtain a definitive list of all his composition pupils at the RCM during his tenure. As a guide I have provided a list of a number of the lesser known composers who certainly came under Stanford’s sphere of influence if not taking lessons with him namely: Fritz Hart, Sydney Peine (S.P.) Waddington, Geoffrey Toye, Harold Darke, William Henry Bell, Cecil Forsyth, Arthur Somervell, Henry Walford Davies, James Friskin, Frank Tapp, Alan Taffs, Edward Naylor, Sydney Hugo Nicholson, Eric Gritton and Ernest Farrar, Landon Ronald, William Harris, Heathcote Statham and Frederick Wadely.
Both orchestras can take credit for splendidly perceptive and well rounded performances. In the Cambrian Raphael Wallfisch aptly demonstrates his superb technique. The timbre of his 1760 Gennaro Gagliano cello is glorious. Recorded at two separate locations the sound quality is clear albeit somewhat lacking in depth. An interesting and informative essay together with striking artwork adds to the excellent presentation. It is pleasing to see the renewal of interest in the late-Romantic music of Joseph Holbrooke. With a recording as fine as this long may it continue.
Michael Cookson
It is pleasing to see the renewal of interest in the late-Romantic music of Joseph Holbrooke. With a recording as fine as this long may it continue.