The best place to start this excellent new CD of music by Josef
Holbrooke is the short character piece L’Extase from
the Mezzotints Op. 55. This is one of a group of pieces
that the composer wrote for clarinet or violin and piano. Robert
Stevenson, in the liner notes writes that these were actually
part of a bigger project of a dozen pieces which were conceived
as being one for each month of the year. However the compositional
history appears to be quite convoluted.
In a dissertation on Holbrooke’s chamber music Joseph Dee Webb
has suggested that Op.55 has eight pieces which were published
in two volumes. They are listed there as Volume 1 Op.55, nos.1-3
L’Extase, Albanian Serenade, Celtic Elegie,
and Op.55 nos. 5-8 Canzonetta ‘Spring Song’ (8) ‘The
Butterfly of the Ballet’ (6), Girgenti (Cavatina) (7)
and finally From Syracuse (5). Apparently the clarinet
quintet Eilean Shona (recorded by Thea King on Hyperion)
may have been a part of this collection. They were originally
published in 1918; however it is not possible to assign a date
In spite of all this confusion L’Extase is a lovely romantic
little work that holds the listener’s attention. Let us hope
that someone will record the entire ‘cycle’ of Mezzotints
before too long.
The Violin Sonata No. 1 which is subtitled ‘Sonatina’
is deceptive. The soubriquet certainly does not do this 20-minute
work justice. In fact, it is a classically conceived sonata
in four well-balanced movements. However, the listener will
not find any great emotional depth in it: George Lowe has suggested
that it is ‘a bright and pleasant composition... [that] skates
over the surface of things.’ Yet there is a beauty and attractiveness
about the unfolding of this work that manages to hold the listener’s
From the opening of the allegro in a rather optimistic minor
key the movement explores a couple of pleasant themes. These
resolve themselves after a short development into a traditional
reprise. The ‘Nocturne’ is delightful if not particularly profound.
There is certainly something of the ‘palm-court’ about it. The
Scherzo is an interesting little number that does not really
challenge, but is enjoyable all the same. There may well be
a touch of Mendelssohn about this music, but it does not really
It is with the last movement that one of Holbrooke’s fingerprints
emerges: the nod towards popular music, in this case music-hall
songs. Certainly, the main rondo theme is particularly charming.
The work was probably composed in the late 1890s and was duly
dedicated to the great Fritz Kreisler. Stevenson suggests that
this was probably more in hope than in anticipation of a performance
by the maestro. The work was considerably revised over the next
decade or so until it was finally published in 1907.
This is a Sonata that does not move mountains, but is well worth
listening to. It is enjoyable and heart-warming from end to
I fell in love with the Horn Trio (c.1906) on first hearing.
It is a charming and optimistic work that surely demands to
be in the repertoire. In fact, Robert Stevenson has suggested
that one of the motivations to write this work may have been
that any performances of Brahms’ Horn Trio, Op.40 would have
required a companion piece in order to present a full concert.
Interestingly it is regarded as being technically more demanding
than the Brahms work. George Lowe has written that ‘this Trio
... is one of the brightest and most genial of Holbrooke’s works.
It is uniformly melodious, and, in its middle movement, attains
to considerable dignity and beauty of expression. Its sentiment
has, to a large extent, been suggested by lines from Byron’s
‘There’s music in the sighing of a reed
There’s music in the gushing of a rill
There’s music in all things if men had ears
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.’’
The Horn Trio is in three movements: - a ‘larghetto sostenuto-allegro
con brio’, an ‘adagio ma non troppo’ and a concluding ‘molto
vivace’. The work was dedicated to the German horn player Adolf
Borsdorf (1854-1923). Interestingly there are a number of problems
in the compositional history of this work, and these have been
addressed in the liner notes and in Music & Letters, October
1965 by Kenneth L. Thompson. However these scholarly concerns
need not distract us from a delightful and often rather beautiful
I found the slow movement the most enchanting, with a delicious
dialogue between the horn and the violin. However the opening
movement has many delightful moments. Yet it is the finale that
sets its seal on the positive and ultimately cheerful nature
of this work.
I guess most people will be curious to know two things about
the Violin Concerto ‘The Grasshopper’ (Violin Sonata No.
2) Op.59. Firstly, why has it gained the nickname ‘Grasshopper’
and secondly why does the title mention that this is a Violin
Concerto as well as a Violin Sonata. Certainly the solo part
may well suggest the behaviour of this creature, with its often
lively and ‘frenetic leaping around.’ In 1937 Havergal Brian
suggested that the piece may have been inspired (in part) by
the Richard Lovelace poem of the same title:-
Oh thou that swing'st upon the waving haire
Of some well-filled Oaten Beard,
Drunke ev'ry night with a Delicious teare
Dropt thee from Heav'n, where now th'art reard.
However, I think that it is advisable to hear this work without
recourse to any mental images of insects or recalling any lines
The compositional and cataloguing history of this piece is even
more complex than that of the Mezzotints and the Horn Trio.
There is even an alternative final movement. All this is discussed
in considerable detail in the liner notes. However, it is worth
pointing out that the work exists in two incarnations – the
Concerto with orchestra and the Sonata (with some simplifications
of the solo part) as played here. It is important to note that
the ‘difficult’ version of the fiddle part is performed in the
This is a lovely sonata that is chock-full of good tunes for
the soloist and an interesting piano part. A contemporary reviewer
suggested that it was a work ‘overflowing with milk and honey’.
Certainly it is a positive piece that is satisfying and enjoyable.
It is difficult to categorise but it is more in the classical
tradition than a romantic tour de force between soloist
The work’s orchestral premiere was on 7 November 1917 at a Leeds
Philharmonic Society concert with the Hallé Orchestra conducted
by the composer. However the ‘reduced’ version had been performed
at the Crane Hall in Liverpool on 22 January 1917.
There is a hint in the liner-notes that a recording of the orchestral
version may be forthcoming, as well as another incarnation of
the Horn Trio. Also Robert Stevenson suggests that the ‘sonata’
version of the final movement may be available at some stage.
Naxos has to be congratulated on this excellent CD. For far
too long Josef Holbrooke’s music has been ignored. Over the
last ten years or so a few pieces have begun to appear in the
record catalogues. Most recently was the excellent Dutton
Epoch release included the Fourth Symphony and the Cello
Concerto. However there is a huge catalogue of music waiting
to be explored, including some eight operas, a variety of concertos,
eight symphonies, a number of orchestral pieces and a great
deal of chamber works. These last two groups have been explored
on CD – but much remains to discover.
Kerenza Peacock, Mark Smith and Robert Stevenson play all four
works in a convincing and enthusiastic manner: they are excellent
advocates for Holbrooke’s music. Finally the liner-notes by
Robert Stevenson are exemplary: it is a major essay that considers
Holbrooke’s status as a composer and a detailed consideration
of the works presented. Would that programme-note writers generally
were as committed to the historical and analytical side of music-making.
Finally, I can only hope that Naxos will embark on further recording
projects of Holbrooke’s music: even the briefest glance at the
catalogues will suggest a number of avenues worthy of exploration.
… and a further review – this time by Rob Barnett
When I called for ‘more please’ at the end of my review of Robert Stevenson’s last CD of rare British violin sonatas I had no idea that within three years there would an all-Holbrooke volume to follow. That disc (Dutton CDLX7219) included works by Rootham, Walford Davies and Holbrooke (No. 3). The issue of the present volume means that all three of the Holbrooke violin sonatas are available on disc.
Holbrooke's reputation rather like that of his friend and fellow Brightonian (briefly) is dogged by the forbidding mirage of works of huge length for massive orchestras. While a handful of Brian's match the image most of his symphonies are pretty short. As for Holbrooke his Cauldron of Annwn operatic trilogy is big; nothing approaching Sorabji. So are works such as the second symphony Apollo and the Seaman and the Poe-based A Choral Symphony. The score of The Bells, which runs to about half an hour, calls for a massive orchestra with plenty of esoteric add-ons. However his other tone poems and much else is on a smaller scale. If we, for now, ignore the mass of piano solos, songs and choral brevities we can, courtesy of Naxos and these artists, spend time in the company of his chamber music which forms the focus of this collection.
The Violin Sonata No. 1 is polished, charming, good-humoured and urbane. This was written in the benevolent shade cast by the violin sonatas of Schumann and Beethoven. Its pages are suffused with the grateful salon-luxury of Kreisler to whom it was dedicated. It is a most accomplished and fluent work with good themes and a winking eye to instant engagement with audiences. If you like high-tide romantic violin sonatas without the more torrid emotional extremes of the Walter and Marx then this will reward your attention over and over.
The bigger Horn Trio in D is in three movements broadly cast in the same language. Here however the moods are more subtle and nuanced with a ready aptitude for darkness. The music has depth and while in the Sonatina one may think of Dvorák or Kreisler at his finest, here the references are Josef Suk and even Rachmaninov whose middle two piano concertos Holbrooke reputedly played in concert. The finale is no let-down though at times it picks up on the sometimes gawky wit of the Sonatina woven with a sense of victorious majesty. Readers can experience the last movement of the revised version of the Trio at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CHSZrGXgB0
The Second Violin Sonata rejoices under various titles even as a chamber work. There is also a parallel version of the Violin Concerto known as The Grasshopper. Holbrooke wrote only one such violin concerto.
The opening Allegro con molto fuoco scorches along in late-romantic style making demands that Kerenza Peacock meets head-on. Again there are some Rachmaninovian touches but this is most reminiscent of a surgingly confident Schumann work - perhaps one written had the composer lived into a fluent old age. The work is torrentially articulated and swirls and eddies with delightful invention. Try the high-lying violin solo at the end of the first movement. The big central Adagio is tremulously heartfelt and long-limbed. Ms Peacock plays with affecting Delian tenderness. The finale leaps, dazzles, chirrups and gleams with a touch of the Glazunov Violin Concerto about it.
To finish there is a bonne-bouche in the shape of one of the much arranged Mezzotints - souvenirs of a Mediterranean honeymoon cruise with his millionaire benefactor, Lord Howard de Walden and the Lord’s wife. L'Extase is a fluttering Duparc or Chausson-like thing that moves into tenderness. I hope that one day we will hear the full sequence. An account of the history of the Mezzotints is set out in a note below.
The horn is a thrawn presence to balance in chamber hall or on disc. Here it is most equably voiced and weighted with the other two ‘voices’. Listen to the way at 5:30 the horn sings smoothly over the other instruments without obliterating them. A notable achievement for Michael Ponder – one time viola player who championed the Bantock viola sonata. His contribution deserves special attention.
Scanning the horizon there are rumours of a successor to CPO’s first Holbrooke CD (777 442) from Howard Griffiths and the Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt. The original from 2008 is indispensable and allows you to hear three tone poems: Amontillado, The Viking and Ulalume as well as the quirky Three Blind Mice Variations. The new disc may well include the orchestral version of the Violin Concerto, the Third Symphony Ships and the Auld Lang Syne variations; the latter a companion to the Three Blind Mice (Beulah 1PD3) and Girl I Left Behind Me sets. The Saxophone Concerto has just been recorded along with the ballet: Aucassin et Nicolette Op.115. Let us keep up the pressure for the 70 minute long Second Symphony and its predecessor, the Poe-based A Choral Symphony.
All three players are far from cautious and radiate all the out and out commitment these scores invite. Robert Stevenson is a fine pianist and his playing – and that of his colleagues – reflects his sympathy, sensitivity, skill and enthusiasm in these unknown scores. The music and its playing will gratify and surprise.
Holbrooke on MusicWeb International
Holbrooke resource page
British Music chamber collection
String Quartets - Dutton
Piano Music – vol. 1
Piano Music – vol. 2
has written to clarify a number of points:-
The Clarinet quintet (Eilean Shona) was not part of the Mezzo-Tints set. The piece of that name in the set bears no resemblance to the short piece recorded on the Dutton CD of the string quartets/clarinet quintet (or the quintet itself). It seems that Holbrooke used two quite different versions of the song/tune(?) as the basis for these two pieces.
- Havergal Brian was not responsible for suggesting the “Grasshopper” link
with Richard Lovelace’s poem. It was Kerenza’s friend’s father
who made that connection.
- There are three versions of the ‘Concerto’: the concerto with orchestra,
the (reduced) concerto with piano and the “sonata” (with the
slightly simplified last movement). We play the concerto with
- CPO will shortly be releasing their version of the concerto with orchestra.
I believe that another violinist is exploring the possibility
of recording the sonata version. My comments with regard to
the sonata version related to the fact that we recorded the
alternative passages as well, so that Naxos could, if they
wished, release the sonata version for the last movement separately
– or with our version of the rest of the work.
- There are currently two alternative recordings of the Horn Trio: one is on
DVD - disk 6 of The 2007 Newport Music Festival - Connoisseur's
Collection; the other is on the Albany CD of horn, violin
and piano music focused around the violinist, Jennifer Frautschi.
I know the Albany group play the revised version. I rather
expect that the Newport artists do as well.
- Strictly speaking, Naxos are to be congratulated on taking this recording
(for which they were not responsible) and marketing it.
- It is my mother’s picture that graces the CD case.
Note on the History of the Mezzo-Tints
In 1920 the Op. 55 set consisted of:-
in C minor, larghetto sostenuto. This was published by Novello in 1914 in both clarinet and violin versions. The clarinet version carries the following details: ‘Corfu, May 1912’. Gwydion Brooke, the composers’ son, prepared a bassoon version. A Nocturne for violin and piano Op. 74a may well be one and the same as this piece.
, marked Andante semplice.
3. Albanian Serenade
, marked Andantino.
4. Celtic Elégie
(these last three published by Ricordi), marked Adagio ed espressivo molto.
5. Mélodie, Eilean Shona, Spring Song
- andante espressivo, (a version of the Cavatina
from Op. 27, which was, in its turn, an arrangement of a song, was also made available in an organ transcription published by de Wolfes in 1927). Eilean Shona is the Gaelic for “Happy Island” or in some versions “The Island of the Ford”.
6. Scherzo - From Syracuse
- Poco vivace. The Syracuse Scherzo may well be the same item as the Mezzotint
of the same name from Op. 49. The last two pieces were published by Cary.
7. A further piece had been added by 1937: The Butterfly of the Ballet
- Con brio grazioso. This was broadcast with the Nocturne by Thea King and Clifford Benson in 1988. There may also be some kinship with the piece for brass band Butterfly of the Ballet
once given the opus number 69b.
The Mezzotints were also made available in violin (all), saxophone (numbers 1 - 6), bassoon, organ (all) or horn versions. The saxophone and clarinet versions were at one time grouped into two Suites: Suite No. 1
comprising just numbers 2 and 3. Suite No. 2
comprised numbers 1, 4, 5 and 6 together with a piece called Tangolo
In 1927 the publishers de Wolfes brought out the Four Mezzotints for orchestra. They were:-
1. Eilean Shona
2. The Butterfly of the Ballet
3. Girgenti - Cavatina
- Adagio non troppo (from Op. 49) and
4. From Syracuse
The last movement had previously been published in a version for a small orchestra by Novello; as had L’Extase