Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
The Pit and the Pendulum Fantasie for Orchestra op.126 (1929) [9:46]
Symphony no.4 in B minor op.95 Homage to Schubert(1928) [30:55]
Cello Concerto op.103 Cambrian(1936) [28:12]
Pandora (1920) [6:04]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/George Vass;
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/George Vass (concerto; Pandora)
rec. The Friary, Liverpool 6 April 2010; RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow 3 May 2010
World premiere recordings
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7251 [74:57]

Let me first of all declare my interest in this disc. I was commissioned by Dutton to write the liner-note for the present disc. I have been conducting amateur research into Holbrooke since circa 1988, my interest having first been aroused by that champion of Holbrooke and Bantock, Michael Freeman.

The four scores here and the performances, along with the orchestral recordings by CPO, appear to me to be the most faithful and fervent.

Holbrooke wrote many works inspired by the writings of Poe. These included some of his most famous. The Pit and the Pendulum (after the short story of the same name) did not secure a premiere until 2008 when Christopher Fifield conducted it with the Lambeth Orchestra. It's an overture-length work in a manner that can be likened to Franck's Chasseur Maudit. Since writing the review I have heard from John Sands that the material for The Pit was drawn from his 1915 Ballet opera The Wizard. Mr Sands believes that the lost 'Poeana' tone poem The Maelstrom (also from the 1920s) would also have been derived from The Wizard. In any event The Pit is lively, melodramatic, yesbut full of incident, quite exciting, a little bumpily episodic. Personally I'd forget the Poe story while listening except as a sort of generalised ambience to the overall mood. It would manage quite happily without. Imagine if Bax had written explicitly into his Tintagel score little plot signposts. The Holbrooke piece manages quite well without thinking - ah, here is the bit where the hapless victim is strapped onto a table above the swinging blade. A lighter-hearted but very accomplished companion overture Amontillado is on CPO and is very well worth tracking down.

Dexter Newman's engineering bears magnificent fruit throughout. The recording quality excels. For proof listen to the opening of the 1930s Cello Concerto. It's in a romantic idiom and Raphael Wallfisch rises to its sumptuous virtuosic heights. It can be thought of as a companion to the Dvorák and Lalo concertos. Pleasing music, passionate and inventive with a haunting Adagio. It was premiered at an Eisteddfod in a large canvas marquee. After a few performances stretching into the 1940s - none of them by top-flight orchestras or great names - it fell into the darkness only to be resurrected now.

The Fourth Symphony is from the mid-late 1920s though much revised after that. It dates from between the Third (1920) and the Fifth Wild Wales. Written as an entry for the Schubert Centenary Competition it pays elegant homage to Schubert in music that melts between pastiche and late romantic. It's a work of attractions with chuckling guile and romantic proclivities. It sometimes has the feel of the Schubert Great C major. Vass is most attentive throughout and breathes vivacious life into all these scores. The Viennese swing he draws from the Fourth is just one example. In the Andantino sostenuto the mood is more impressionistic - a deep bow to Schubert in language that is pastoral - almost Goossens’ By the Tarn - at first before picking up on moments of serenade. There's a lovely harp and flute central episode at the core. The finale is joyous with asides similar to the manner of his friend Bantock's Pierrot of the Minute. The finale has a fine swirling energy with a touch of Kodaly about it and a final reference back to the pastiche of the first movement.

Pandora is a ballet score that never quite made it into the dance repertoire. It's in effect a grand stately dance in a manner familiar from Geoffrey Toye and Haydn Wood. Silvery almost innocent music, very charming indeed with hearts set a flutter. Let's hope that Dutton can track down orchestral materials for the host of dance-band pieces JH wrote in the 1920s fuelled by the flapper craze and his and his wife's enthusiasm for dancing. Their titles include one called Let's Brighten Brighton. Pandora however is a gently amorous dance and really distinctive. A memorable score.

These are all first recordings. The notes are extensive and as with Dutton generally are in English only.

I note that the copyright in these recordings is owned by Peter Shore who has been such a champion of Tovey and of Armstrong Gibbs.

It's rumoured that CPO are planning a disc to include the Symphony No 3 Ships (JH had the privilege of a buffeting Channel tour on a British Navy Dreadnought captained by Robert Scott in the early 1900s) and the Violin Concerto Grasshopper.

I do hope that Dutton will not lose interest in Holbrooke. Plenty more orchestral works to come including the Poe-based A Choral Symphony and in most urgent need of a recording, the Mhlerian-length symphony Apollo and the Seaman, the latter premiered in celebrity circumstances conducted by Beecham and after a second performance never performed again complete. There are also several major orchestral poems drawn from the operatic trilogy The Cauldron of Annwn.

Meantime do buy this completely enjoyable disc.

Rob Barnett

Note: Gareth Vaughan points out that: "the slow movement of the Cello Concerto is based on the Welsh lament "Dafydd y Gareg Wen" - a glorious and haunting melody which I have often sung. In fact, my only slight quibble with the performance relates to the episode in that movement where a solo oboe is singing the tune while the cello decorates it: the engineers have arranged it so that the cello decorations predominate to such a degree that one can barely hear the oboe. It should be the other way around, of course.

This is a completely enjoyable disc.