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RECORDING NEGLECTED BRITISH MUSIC by Robert Stevenson

It’s strange how things work out. When I was in my last year at university, I had an important decision to make. A career in management consultancy beckoned but I also vaguely wondered about the much less secure option of attempting to make it as a concert pianist. I had some talent as a pianist but was largely self-taught, so a career in music was never going to be a realistic option and I opted for consultancy. Subsequently, I managed to continue to give concerts and even made private recordings of these. I always dreamed of making a commercial recording but I never thought there was any likelihood of it happening – let alone being invited to write an article for the BMS.
More recently, when I set up my own contracting consultancy in 2003, I discovered that I now had much more flexibility to indulge my musical interests. An egotistical urge to stretch my talents and see if I actually could get a record company to take me seriously finally bore fruit in late 2008 with a disc (for Dutton’s Epoch label) of neglected English violin sonatas by Holbrooke, Rootham and Walford Davies - with my friend, the violinist, Jacqueline Roche. Review On the strength of favourable critical reviews to this I am proposing to make another, this time for Naxos, of Holbrooke’s remaining violin sonatas plus his horn trio.
Rob Barnett has kindly invited me to share my experiences of “the trials, tribulations and practicalities - as well as revelations and rewards of recording British music that has fallen into neglect”.
With the grand total of just one commercial CD to my name, I wonder whether my limited experiences will actually be of interest. On reflection, though, I do have a considerable focus on exploring unusual music – and the process of making a recording does provide a story of sorts. Of course, for neglected music (of any nationality) to be explored, there are two bands of explorers – those actually unearthing and recording the music and those who are, thereby, given the opportunity to listen to and assess it. I have usually been one of the latter but I can now claim to be one of the former. With the perspective this brings I can, perhaps, indicate the sheer effort that has to be expended to unearth unusual British music – and the luck that has to be involved. So here goes.
Background – the digital age
Of course, part of the luck is in being around at the right historical time. Changes in the listening market have been linked to changes in the infrastructure of the music industry over the last thirty years or so, and such changes were essential for somebody like me (and lots of professional musicians) to be able to make commercial recordings more easily – particularly of unusual music.
The dawn of the digital age created opportunities for all kinds of music in various ways:


  • Once new manufacturing facilities were available, CDs were much easier to produce than LPs and unit costs were much lower.

  • Digital recording became easier than analogue recording as it became easier to copy master source material faithfully and make unobtrusive edits.

  • The arrival of the Internet made it possible to listen to, buy and download music – thereby encouraging a potential world-wide audience to ignore national barriers.

  • At the same time both markets and talents were being stimulated. Music schools in both the West and the Far East were pumping out high-quality classically-trained performers who needed to showcase their talents.

In the relatively poorly supported classical music world, constant pressure to cut costs could be absorbed instead of resulting in the market being abandoned. In particular, various aspects of the old record company business model could be turned on their heads. There was less need to sign up masses of promising artists on spec. Instead, they could be encouraged to make their own recordings (at their own cost) and submit these to the record companies to market them - subject to achieving the required (performance and recording) quality standards, of course. More use could be made of live concert recordings – with limited digital patching to cover up the occasional error.
Moreover, given that marketeers recognised that classical music listening was (to a large extent) the active preserve of an educated and affluent segment of the market, the time was now right to exploit this segment commercially. In the UK, this realisation was marked by the appearance of ClassicFM, eighteen years ago – and there were other parallel operations elsewhere. This opened up classical music radio listening in the UK alone from the perceived elitism of the quarter of a million strong Radio 3 audience 20 years ago to about 6 million now. This is all making it possible to explore the classical music repertoire much faster than before and to judge unusual and neglected repertoire much more objectively - from a position of familiarity with the best (and some of the worst). So how is British music faring in this environment? The answer is much like the curate’s egg - well in parts.
Background - a good time for British music?
The old perception that British classical music was of limited appeal because it somehow “doesn’t travel” probably has to be revised. Whilst it remains true that you don’t tend to hear much British music on the continent and in European concert halls (with the possible exceptions of Holst and Elgar) this has almost certainly nothing to do with any shortcomings of the music – at least that of the front rank of British composers. The real problems include innate local conservatism (e.g. in Vienna, where the VPO doggedly sticks to the local classics, hardly ever playing Sibelius – let alone anything British) and the fact that Brits tend to be outward-facing and, typically, reticent about promoting their own music. So British music remains unfamiliar and foreign performers exploring it for the first few times can sometimes miss essential features of the necessary performing style. A few years ago I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Festival Hall, conducting the Philharmonia, in a magnificent performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony - but he started the concert with, of all things, Bax’s Tintagel and, in my opinion, this completely eluded him. On the other hand, I have heard this same conductor giving a very moving performance of Vaughan Williams’ fifth symphony with, of all orchestras, the Shanghai Philharmonic! So it can be done.
Some British music is doing very well. Whatever feelings some of us may have about the insidious “dumbing down” effects of a commercial station (even on Radio 3) it is undeniable that ClassicFM is giving a much wider range of listeners in the UK access to classical music - albeit mostly in short chunks. Although popular pieces are inevitably going to be played to death, some of them are British and I mumble thanks through gritted teeth when I hear what was once a favourite of mine, “The Lark Ascending”, for what seems like the twentieth time in a week - because I know there will be some Delius or even Bax before too long.
But what of the music of all those other British composers? Why, for example, is Moeran’s glorious symphony so rarely played? Surely it is the equal of Sibelius’s 5th? The answer is that few listeners know it yet because it still isn’t played often enough - but ClassicFM will probably get round to playing it all too frequently given time. The same should apply to William Alwyn’s 3rd and – possibly – to the other Alwyn symphonies. At least all of the above have been recorded. For that which hasn’t yet been recorded the outlook remains more questionable. Much may depend on the quality evident in just the first few bars for anybody even to bother with it.
At the risk of stating the obvious, what constitutes “quality” in musical terms probably has a lot to do with how the music seizes the listener’s interest, ingratiates itself, and sticks in the memory (for the right reasons). This doesn’t preclude eclecticism but blandness really won’t do. The composer will individually benefit if his or her style has a recognisably distinct “voice” in his own lifetime. I suppose the difference between the great and the also-ran composer is the extent to which his or her music ticks all these boxes consistently. The music of several British composers simply doesn’t and, for this reason, their output will always struggle to achieve an audience – and/or to keep it. In the field of neglected music you have to kiss an awful lot more musical frogs to find the handsome princes and, whilst marketeers may be prepared to experiment a bit to see if they can manipulate the market (the music of Henryk Gorecki and Gavin Bryars comes to mind!) commercial radio stations are generally less keen to force their listeners to kiss frogs. The trick is to offer the neglected music which ticks the most boxes – but unearthing it is much easier said than done.
A first commercial recording project
I could go on about the background but the important point is that all the initial factors mentioned above made it possible for somebody like me to make a commercial recording and to offer (a carefully selected sample of) unusual repertoire to a worldwide specialist audience prepared to listen to it – something that would have been far less possible only 20-30 years ago.
So what were the trails, tribulations, etc. for me? I suppose I should attempt to distinguish three themes:

  • The revelations, rewards, etc. of exploring unusual and neglected music (with the focus on British music, of course)

  • The trials, tribulations, etc. of making recordings – i.e. issues common to the recording of any classical music

  • The peculiar difficulties of the process for an amateur musician.

In fact, in reviewing my own experience, I have found it difficult to disentangle these themes - so I shall simply relate how I went about getting a recording made, delivered and publicised in the hope that any points of potential interest to a BMS audience will emerge.
The essential starting points
Apart from having some obvious musical ability and the aforesaid egotistical urge to leave something of it to posterity, it is essential for those aiming to make a commercial recording to have the following:

  • Sufficient recorded performances of their efforts, at concert standard, to be able to demonstrate the capability to get there and not waste everybody’s time. Obviously, it is helpful to select examples of these performances to make up a “demo” disc to offer to recording companies. I had masses of these, made over 30 years and digitally edited – including concertos, chamber music, solo recitals and lieder accompaniment. Jacqui had had her own (rather more select) demo disc produced to professional standards.

  • A network of musical contacts of various kinds including: up and coming professional musicians (like Jacqui) who deserve greater exposure; the odd recording engineer/producer and, to explore unusual music, it also helps to know the experts in their fields who can help to find the music and/or provide useful background information.

  • Sufficient financial resources – preferably in the form of a handy sponsor. However, several years of working as a contracting management consultant had provided modest financial resources for my enterprise and I calculated that I could afford a couple of thousand pounds.

  • A degree of good luck.

Based on my financial resources, my musical contacts and my demo discs I (naively) thought that I was well positioned. This turned out to be partially true but I was to find actually achieving my goal from this starting point would involve a range of other factors and require real determination.
Finding suitable repertoire
Assuming that a record company might consider me, an initial issue was what repertoire to offer. As an amateur, I felt a bit exposed offering any kind of solo piano music. There might be more safety in numbers (and, possibly, more likelihood of achieving a suitably polished performance if I were working in the company of one or more professional musicians) so I aimed for chamber music. I had recently met Jacqui, whose performances had greatly impressed me, so I raised the idea of recording some violin sonatas with her. Recent offers from other sources for her to make some recordings had come to nothing so my timing was good and she was amenable to the idea of recording for the sake of gaining some useful market exposure. As relative unknowns making a first foray into the market, we agreed that it would probably be foolhardy to offer mainstream repertoire, where the competition would inevitably be fierce, so neglected repertoire seemed the way to go. Better to be large fish in a small pond. More to the point, if we wanted to be noticed, reviews were essential and the best way of ensuring that we received some (although this was not guaranteed) was to go for obscure repertoire.
Jacqui was friendly with the composer Howard Blake (of “The Snowman” fame) and he had composed a violin sonata which was in need of a recording. Blake’s teacher had been Howard Ferguson, whose excellent – and unjustifiably rarely recorded - second violin sonata I had already played. (Heifetz, no less, had recorded the first.) This suggested a possible programme coupling the two Ferguson violin sonatas with Blake’s and I attempted to sell this idea to several record companies. My efforts fell on stony ground for reasons which I still don’t understand. Maybe part of the problem was that the two Ferguson sonatas had already been recorded. (Naxos, who originally turned the idea down, ostensibly on commercial grounds, subsequently recorded Blake’s sonata - with the composer and Madeleine Mitchell performing. Perhaps they already had this in mind.)
I subsequently happened on one of Rob Barnett’s record reviews - in which he commented that somebody really ought to explore the violin sonatas of Rootham and Holbrooke. I had an old tape recording of a BBC concert broadcast of the Holbrooke 3rd sonata (Op.83 – the “Orientale”) which sounded very interesting so, deciding to trust Rob’s judgement, I began to contact record companies to see if a recital based on these two sonatas would be acceptable. It was. Lewis Foreman at Dutton expressed interest and, in response to my queries about how best to fill the remainder of the recital, suggested that I might like to have a look in Westminster Library where he knew there was a copy of Walford Davies’s second sonata (Op. 7). This also looked interesting – and the Holbrooke was there as well, so we were now beginning to make progress with a recital plan. The music of the Rootham had been published but appeared to be out of print so I spent several hours at the British Library and managed to find the music and order some (expensive) photo copies. Anyway, this sonata looked highly interesting – if something of a technical challenge. We now had all the music – or so I thought. Surely three violin sonatas would be enough?
Landing a recording contract
Next, I had to organise a recording contract and I sent Dutton a demo disc of examples of our (separate) performances. Lewis Foreman was very helpful but very busy so his response to this took a while. Fortunately, our demo performances were suitably convincing. The basis of the resulting contract was that Jacqui and I would provide a recording of the three sonatas proposed and, if this was up to scratch, Dutton would market it. We would start to get paid royalties if it sold more than 3,000 copies. I later learned that, although it didn’t seem like it at the time, this was actually quite a generous offer. Most other companies don’t protect the artists in this way. In the unlikely event that a recording became very popular for some reason, the artists would normally receive no corresponding payment (like Sibelius with his Valse Triste or Bruch and his first Violin Concerto). This, of course, is how the new business model works. Unless you are a very well-known artist you typically get marketing exposure as a return for your efforts - but nothing else. Fortunately, we were not in it for the money – although some financial return would have been a bonus.
Organising a producer
For all my concerts I had made recordings on high-quality cassette recorders (or, more recently, hard disc recorder) using some microphones that had been highly regarded back in the 1970s. Editing had been done using a second generation “digital studio”. The results were very listenable but not quite up to modern hi-fi standards and the edits were often discernable. For our efforts to result in acceptable recording quality I was going to have to engage the services of a (digital) recording producer and an editor. Fortunately, I had happened on the name of Michael Ponder, who had provided his services to several of the record companies I contacted, including Dutton. Michael kindly agreed to do the job and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was confident that we could achieve the required performance standard but Michael would also be in a particularly good position to judge what would be acceptable to Dutton - and make sure we achieved it.
Finding a recording venue
I then had to find a venue for the recording - preferably one that already had a decent concert grand piano (it being prohibitively expensive to hire one separately). This was difficult. The requirement ruled out many of the churches I had been considering – as did the closeness of these venues to the main flight path into Heathrow and the preferred routes of a lot of noisy emergency service vehicles. Michael suggested the Potton Hall, a converted barn deep in the wilds of Suffolk – a location that would add to the costs of three days of recording sessions the costs of accommodation and meals for three people. The costs of piano tuning and page turning had to be added to that as well, of course. It was a good suggestion but my original budget now had to be more than doubled. On the other hand the best alternatives were likely to cost at least as much, one way or the other, so I decided on the Potton Hall and booked three days there, for six months hence.
Practise sessions and rehearsals
It is surprising how quickly time flies when you commit yourself in this way. I had plenty of contract consultancy work so could only devote my evenings and weekends to practice. There was little or no chance to rehearse with Jacqui, who had a lot of performing engagements abroad – when she would be away for weeks at a time, with only a day or two back in the UK before disappearing again. I was never really taught how best to practise and my preferred (amateur) rehearsing approach, of building up to a concerto performance gradually, had been honed with evening class orchestras which, typically, gave me the luxury of a whole (school) term with regular practice sessions to get to grips with playing a solo part and attempting not to part company with the (frequently ghastly) noises around me. This was good training in some respects but not for working with a professional, who expected to be able to put together a performance much closer to the event. Eventually, with six weeks to go, Jacqui took pity on me and made herself available for a series of intensive rehearsals.
It soon became evident to me that, for a venture like this, I could not rely on practising just on my own (Bechstein) upright piano. I needed to be able to prepare for the likely more solid touch of the Steinway concert grand in the Potton Hall, so it became necessary to hire additional rehearsal venues with Steinways - pushing the costs up further.
Ideally, you need plenty of time to “bed the music down” on the basis of concert performances. Putting on concerts is a time and money-consuming process at the best of times, involving finding a suitable venue and an audience for whatever you want to perform. Making suitable arrangements and promoting even one concert of unusual repertoire, in the limited time we had available, was impossible so, sadly, there was no opportunity to perform any of the works in public before making the recordings. We also thought long and hard about asking for tips from some of Jacqui’s many famous musician friends – but there was no time for that either.
The music itself
And what of the music? Well, as a reference, I am pretty familiar with the difficulties of playing sonatas like the Franck, Debussy and the later Brahms. These difficulties were definitely of a lower order than those of the sonatas we had programmed – which were more like, say, those of Szymanowski. There had to be reasons for the neglect of the chosen music and my initial cursory examination of the scores had suggested some of these. Closer attention and long hours of practice exposed the remainder. A particular problem we had was lack of familiarity with the composer’s sound world.
The time signatures alone looked somewhat intimidating – especially to an amateur. All three sonatas made extensive use of five beats in a bar and the Walford Davies alternated bars of three beats and four beats, giving the effect of seven or eleven beats, depending on how the bars were arranged. Of course, this is part of what makes the works unusually interesting to listen to – but it probably limits performances to those who have really committed to such repertoire. With six weeks to go I thought I was coping well with all three works – until I recorded my efforts in rehearsal and it became obvious just how much more attention would be needed for the performances to be listenable.
The Holbrooke third sonata is a single movement work - relatively short at thirteen minutes or so and a product of what might be thought of as the composer’s “late” period. Its name (“Orientale”) could just be a Holbrooke afterthought rather than pertaining to a specific tune or sound world. Whilst there are various phrases with an eastern inflection, it is difficult to bring these out in a way that actually sounds oriental without over-emphasis. When I listen to the strange opening page of the score I am most strongly reminded of the sound of native American (“Red Indian”) music. I subsequently made this point in the CD sleeve notes, although one reviewer (an American, I think) criticised me for a lack of perception and commented on the piece as “a real find – deliciously chromatic and laced with touches of Debussy” (!) These touches were not evident to me, so I should be interested to know what impressions the piece gives other listeners. At any rate, whatever it sounds like, some of its varying length phrases, unexpected accents and changing time signatures make it difficult to commit to memory sufficiently to allow attention to be focused other than on the score. This becomes a problem when you really need to watch your hands. Moreover, Holbrooke’s works typically make subtle changes where phrases are repeated in recapitulation. Hardly anything unusual in that, you might think, but Holbrooke’s recapitulation changes are rarely - if ever - intuitive and my hands always seem to prefer to follow the course of the phrase’s earlier appearance. (Perhaps it’s a sign of age.) Anyway, this sonata is definitely testing – and not just for the pianist.
The four-movement Walford Davies second sonata was, superficially, much more influenced by Brahms. The violin part was frequently extremely demanding - with a lot of difficult (and rather impractical) double, treble and quadruple stopping - suggesting that Sir Henry had no access to a handy Joachim. I don’t know whether he was well-known as a pianist but I imagine he must have been pretty good if he could get round his own piano part comfortably. However much I practised them the piano parts of the first and last movements did not fall under the fingers easily for me and the final bars of the short second movement contained a passage that was almost unplayable, possibly because the composer had made a minor mistake with the notation (with what looked like an unnecessary doubling of the speed). During the studio recording I probably had thirty attempts at this before finally getting an acceptable take. I often wonder if Michael was quietly despairing of turning my sow’s ear into a silk purse. He was, however, remarkably patient!
Rootham’s sonata is a lovely piece, whose style is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. It was probably the simplest of the three in purely technical terms, although it required careful attention to frequent changes of dynamics and some subtle key changes. Unfortunately, whilst listening to the second iteration of digital editing of the initial takes, some weeks after the recording, I was to discover that I had somehow misread the key signature of a twelve bar passage. Although the misreading sounded perfectly convincing as music it was not what the composer had written. Correcting the error – just a few seconds of music - necessitated having to re-learn the passage and make (expensive) arrangements to take Jacqui all the way out to darkest Suffolk again when Michael Ponder was next recording at the Hall. In the end it took less than ten minutes actually to record the correction. I suppose I could have acquiesced and kept quiet but I would never have forgiven myself for issuing a first recording of the work with an error of that nature.
In summary, I will simply say that we were extremely lucky to find three sonatas that probably owed their neglect to difficulties of performance that, in turn, made them sufficiently interesting to justify unearthing them. Sadly, during our rehearsal sessions, I neglected to establish the sonatas’ overall duration. Had I done so I would probably have realised the need for more material.
The recording sessions
I won’t go into much further detail about the recording sessions. Let it suffice to say that established professional musicians would, typically, record subtly different takes of each movement and pore over the takes to select their favourite interpretation – possibly allowing a little digital patching for slight imperfections. To accommodate my limitations the approach for our debut recording had to be different. For the most part we had only one interpretation prepared and we stuck to that – it was more a question of getting the notes correct. This took so long that there was hardly any opportunity to review the takes at the time.
As I recall, Michael said that the standard approach to recording chamber music was to divide movements into sections of two to three pages, record each several times, then select the best/most compatible takes and edit them together. Perhaps he was being both kind and practical. At any rate, lack of deep familiarity with the sound world of the music (and lack of as much rehearsal as we would have needed to be confident in concert performance) meant that we had to be reliant on this method. Fortunately, our preparations had been thorough enough for our speeds to remain consistent between takes, so patching was rarely a problem. I thank providence that I was not born during the era of 78s. With this repertoire I would have needed a great deal more rehearsal time to consider recording any of it in single takes.
Post-recording work
After the recording sessions were complete, Michael took his notes and his DAT cassettes, selected the best takes and sent the tapes and instructions to a (sub-contracted) digital editor, Richard Scott, who did a splendid job of linking all the takes seamlessly and doing a few initial patches. It was then down to us to identify where further patches would be necessary. Needless to say, my efforts required quite a lot of detailed patching – whereas Jacqui’s performances required relatively little. There were three iterations of listening and identifying the further patches needed before we were both satisfied that we had versions of the works that made acceptable listening. Fortunately, by this stage, the results were also acceptable to Dutton and Lewis Foreman almost persuaded me not to bother with further improvements. I did request one or two more and I am glad of that. Even now there are still a few moments on the recordings that I wish I has been able to modify slightly – although this may be a result of having listened to them so often (fortunately, other people rarely seem to notice anything wanting).
On the other hand, I understand that recording producers have quite a problem with the tendency of many musicians never to be satisfied with the quality of what should otherwise be regarded as a perfectly acceptable edited version. In fact, I gather that I am far from being a real offender in terms of the number of patches required. I have heard of one very famous violinist – who shall have to remain nameless - demanding up to twenty edits within a single bar! I take comfort from that.
We now had just over 50 minutes of obscure music ready to be issued to a waiting public. However, Dutton have a policy of offering well-filled CDs – usually of at least an hour’s duration. We needed another ten minutes of music to satisfy this. At this stage, neither Jacqui nor I could face the prospect of finding, learning and recording more pieces so, initially with somewhat heavy hearts, we accepted Dutton’s offered compromise, which made use of a recording of Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Cello Sonatina (by Justin Rose and Sophia Rahman) which had been slightly too long to be included on their original CD of Benjamin’s chamber music. In fact, this lovely performance made a very acceptable fill-up. The disc was no longer wholly ours – but at least it could now be scheduled for release later in the year and, crucially, in time for Christmas.
Marketing material
It was then necessary to get CD sleeve notes written and to provide suitable photos (of both the artists and the composers). I had done a lot of background research and was able to pull together some draft notes which Dutton edited down. Dutton’s CD sleeve house style at the time made use of old railway posters from the early part of the last century – which obviated any chance of getting our pictures on the CD cover. This was a pity for Jacqui, whose photogenic appearance could have boosted sales (but was not an issue for me).
The process of Marketing now had to begin. Lewis was fairly confident that the repertoire we had chosen would get reviewed but, to facilitate this, it was essential for Dutton to send out review copies of the CD to all the relevant magazines, papers and organisations who might take an interest. I sent a large number of supporting e-mails out, with photos of Jacqui, in the hope that some of the magazines would recognise suitable material for their “up and coming artists” pages. I suspect that all my efforts were slightly too late. In spite of the excellence of the photos, the only one that was published accompanied Rob’s review on Music Web International (MWI) where it can still be found, MWI search engine permitting.
The reviews!!
Unfortunately, in spite of a November CD release, it took several months for all the reviews to come out, which probably largely negated the value of getting the recording out before Christmas. By about March of 2009 we had managed to be reviewed in The Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, The Strad, Fanfare, The American Record Guide and The Yorkshire Post, and there were other reviews on the Internet (including MWI, Records International Review and, eventually, some by Amazon customers!). Fortunately, and much to my relief, the reviews were all pretty positive – generally focusing more on the music than the performances (as one might expect).
This article is partly about the revelations and rewards of recording unusual and neglected British music. Several months’ hard slog reduced the impact of my initial impressions on hearing the finished (first commercially recorded) performances of the violin sonatas, so that I can hardly describe the experience as revelatory. However, the music obviously came as something of a revelation to most of the reviewers:

  • Peter Dickinson’s review in The Gramophone commented: “These are fascinating by-ways of British music – pieces one never expected to hear - but with performances like this anything could happen. Some of them could even enter the mainstream.”

  • Robert Maxham, writing in the American magazine, Fanfare, commented: “The works’ interest should be able to propel them not only across the channel but across the ocean as well, especially in such enthusiastic and opulent performances. Generally recommended for the accessible repertoire—and, again, the performances—but recommended with special urgency to Anglophiles and explorers”.

  • The Yorkshire Post’s reviewer, “DD”, commented: “We are again indebted to Dutton for introducing us to the delights of early 20th century violin sonatas from Holbrooke, Walford Davies and Rootham. Conveniently described as coming from the Vaughan Williams era, they are so tuneful and easily attractive their neglect is appalling. The young Jacqueline Roche is the highly persuasive soloist, with sensitive accompaniment from Robert Stevenson”.

  • An Amazon customer review by “Mythago”, commented: “This CD containing one of his [Holbrooke’s] sonatas along with a number of other works is a genuine delight, surprising and familiar (in a very British way) it both rouses and moves in equal parts. Roche's violin performance is wonderful, powerful and evocative, perfectly suited to the Holbrooke sonata in particular. Highly recommended”.

I was suitably grateful for reviews like this (and for ratings of four stars for performance and five for recording quality in the BBC Music Magazine). In spite of the reviews, however, worldwide sales of the CD have been limited and future sales will be very slow. If Dutton manage to shift all of the first batch of pressings they will probably decide not to re-issue for a while – if at all (so get your orders in now, if you haven’t already done so). Needless to say, we don’t expect to be earning any royalties so the rewards will have to remain intangible. Nevertheless, I am sufficiently enthused to have another go.
The next project
As already mentioned, the next project is for a single composer disc that will include Holbrooke’s horn trio, Op 28, and the remaining violin sonatas (Ops 6 and 59). If a fill-up is needed I am considering a selection from the set of so-called Mezzo-Tints, Op 55 (for violin and piano) – unfortunately, there is probably not going to be room for all of the set. The single composer format is more acceptable to Naxos so (assuming the recordings pass muster) they will market this offering. With a bit of luck, if the disk is reasonably successful, the Naxos catalogue will retain it somewhat longer than others might find possible.
It may be better to travel hopefully than to arrive but, for me, the first disc’s arrival was rather better than the journey involved in producing it. Preparing for this second project has been just as difficult.
Continuing problems
Neglected music needs all the help it can get if it is to be given a fair chance to justify its existence so, assuming that listeners are prepared to tolerate my efforts on the piano, I need to engage the services of really excellent professional musicians. Jacqui has all sorts of demanding commitments likely to clash with the recording, including recitals at the Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and the Cheltenham Festival so, with great regret, I have had to find another violinist. That said, it’s an ill wind… My list of contacts has come in useful again and I am delighted to say that Kerenza Peacock, the leader of the Paveo Quartet, has agreed to make the violin sonata and Mezzo-Tint recordings with me and Mark Smith, a much-in-demand freelance horn player, will be joining us for the horn trio.
The familiar issues of finding suitable venues and getting busy musicians together for practice sessions are, once again, becoming an issue - not least because a third player makes gatherings even more difficult to organise (and might make patching the recordings more complex). Of course, if one is lucky enough actually to find excellent professional artists who are prepared to commit to making a recording of rare repertoire, one has to be prepared to work around their availability. Freelance musicians have to grab work opportunities so rehearsal plans which have taken months to organise can be dashed at the last minute. The better the musicians are, the more likely it is that they will be in demand - so this will happen frequently and it can be extremely frustrating.
Financing the venture is still a concern. In the present economic climate contract consultancy work is unusually hard to come by so I have explored the possibility of sponsorship – and have even written to the family of Holbrooke’s benefactor, Lord Howard de Walden, to see if any of their regular donations to good causes might be channelled our way. No such luck, so covering the costs will be down to me again unless somebody knows of a kindly sponsor. This remains a very expensive hobby!
Simply getting hold of the music has involved a lot more effort this time. Only the horn trio remains available in print – astonishingly in two different versions, both of which are copies of handwritten manuscript which is sometimes very difficult to read. The two violin sonatas went out of print long ago and the British Library still required copyright waivers because Holbrooke died as recently as 1958. I tracked down several of Holbrooke’s ex-publishers, only to find (after much effort) that the composer had eventually bought back almost all his copyrights. I then had to get in touch with Jean Holbrooke, the composer’s daughter-in-law, to request the waiver – which she kindly supplied. Armed with this I could organise copies of the British Library’s material.
I managed to find and order copies of the violin sonatas without much difficulty. The music was in large bound volumes, some in a rather poor state of repair, but the person doing the copying must have gone to great trouble to reduce some slightly-too-large pages of music neatly onto A4 sheets (the size I need). I was impressed with this and, three months later, when I attempted to organise copies of the Mezzo-Tints (the separate violin and piano parts of which were inconsistently spread between several volumes) I requested similar reductions – only to be told that the Library did not make reductions and never had! I cited my previous experiences and sought access to higher authorities but this made no difference. I was eventually forced to specify a mixture of expensive and unnecessary A3 sized copies, with simple A4-only copying only where the music was unarguably A4 size. Ensuring that the information was unambiguously laid out and correctly priced on the copying order form involved hours of unpleasant hassle with two difficult and unhelpful Library staff members (about whom a complaint later became necessary – which, needless to say, got me nowhere). I had the uncomfortable feeling that my order would still be compromised and this proved to be the case. I was eventually provided with copies that had been reduced onto A4 paper - but with images of B5 size!! I gather, from other musicians, that I am not alone in having had problems like this. Needless to say, I shall go to considerable lengths to avoid having to rely on this institution again – a pity in view of my earlier experience.
Fortunately, all my research has turned up some useful discoveries about the image manipulation capabilities of Microsoft Office Picture Manager as well as other Internet facilities, including international access to library catalogues around the world (including the UK). It is amazing how many other libraries also have quite a wide selection of Holbrooke’s works. Perhaps his music is better known than I had thought….
The music
When I first explored it I had some concerns about the music but they have been swept away as practice has rendered the pieces listenable. As expected, the early first violin sonata (“Sonatina”) is typical of early Holbrooke, rather sub-Grieg (and similar to Grieg in technical difficulty – albeit rather shorter) with some slightly twee themes that can, nevertheless, be made to sound reasonably convincing. The piece is not deep or profound but it is certainly worth an outing.
The Horn Trio is notable for its slow movement, a very beautiful composition and probably one of Holbrooke’s best. The outer movements don’t stand out so well and are not as well integrated as in the counterpart Brahms work, but the last movement is jolly and the work - as a whole - should be in the standard repertoire. I feel it is at least as memorable as Lennox Berkeley’s similarly scored work.
It is not difficult to see why the second violin sonata/concerto earned its “Grasshopper” tag. Havergal Brian described the first and last of its three movements as: “nimble and quick-witted ... of rhythmical capriciousness suggestive of the title; but the middle movement is a finely sustained elegy in which not only the soloist but also the orchestra eloquently sing”. The music provides two alternative versions of the last movement. The sonata version is fiendishly difficult for the violinist but the concerto form has a cadenza and other passages of additional hair-raising violin pyrotechnics (another reason for its neglect?). A difficulty faces us in terms of the best way to present this material. After considering the possibility of providing separate (alternative) tracks for several modified passages, we have decided that the simplest approach is to present both versions of the movement – although much of the material is identical.
From my own point of view, the one slight regret I have about this “sonata” is that it still sounds like a violin concerto solo with piano accompaniment – rather than being (like the third sonata) a genuine duet for violin and piano. For all that, the piano part is a pig to play, so getting it successfully on record will be something of an achievement in itself.
The possibility of competition
As you may have noticed, there has been a recent surge in releases of Holbrooke’s works. You will probably be aware that the ‘cello sonata, which I would have wanted to include – had I a suitable ‘cellist to hand - has just appeared on one of the BMS’s own CDs. The ‘cello concerto (“The Cambrian”) and fourth symphony, not to speak of various other orchestral works, have also been released by Dutton. Much of the piano music is probably off-limits to me now that is in the process of being explored by the Greek pianist, Panagiotis Trochopoulos – who might even get round to recording the Second Piano Concerto (“The Orient”) as well.
On this basis achieving the distinction of making first recordings of the proposed Holbrooke works just might still be stolen from us – unless we are quick to get the discs made and released. A public performance of the Holbrooke horn trio has already appeared on a set of Canadian DVDs of the 2007 Newport Music Festival, so we can only claim (I hope) that ours will still be the first CD recording of this work.
Conclusion
Recording neglected British music can be a very time-consuming, demanding and expensive process, especially as a hobby for an amateur. I have, however, enjoyed the end result a lot and I hope others will as well.
I made the first CD principally to prove that I had the necessary technique to be taken seriously – in spite of being an amateur. I shall be making the second for the sake of completeness (recording all three Holbrooke violin sonatas) and to prove that I can record for the world’s largest classical music label. I don’t know if anybody else makes recordings for such reasons but British music is a worthwhile focus.
If I make a third CD it will be a toss-up between:

  • Taking advantage of any potential availability of members of the wonderful Paveo Quartet, who might be prepared to join me to record, for example, a piano quintet or two by Walford Davies and/or the remaining (unrecorded) Holbrooke piano quartet or:

  • Convincing somebody to take seriously a grandiose project to set down my interpretations of what are generally regarded as some of the peaks of the standard piano repertoire (e.g. Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit).

Much depends on how much consultancy work I can get to finance these projects (i.e. how the economy improves) and how masochistic I feel! Anyway, please watch this space. Robert Stevenson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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