Holbrooke’s Sonata in F major for Violin and Piano The Grasshopper
is rather like the proverbial bus, only more complicated. You
wait a lifetime for a recording and then two come along at once.
Or, rather, three, almost at once. Naxos
has just issued its recording of the revised version and there’s
a recording of the orchestral version, as a Concerto, due any
time now from CPO. And here we have the authorised original
version from EM Records. Too many versions? Confused? You’re
not the only one.
The work was premiered, as a Concerto, by that eccentric but
pioneering English violinist, John Dunn with the composer conducting.
I’ve always understood that Holbrooke showed the score to Albert
Sammons, who turned it down, claiming it was ‘impossible’. Whether
he meant it was impossible technically (unlikely) or impossible
musically (possible) I’ve never been sure. What a weird work
it is, though. It’s stuffed like a Christmas pudding with so
many sixpences it’s possible to bust your teeth on metal and
never taste much food. Each time I have listened to it I feel
like telling the garrulous composer to get out his red pen and
do some editorial work pronto. Maybe that’s what Sammons meant.
It begins promisingly with a gaunt introductory piano figure
which is promptly ignored by the violinist and his effusive,
soloized lines, expertly delineated by Rupert Marshall-Luck.
Matthew Rickard is his fine sonata colleague, and he expertly
propels the piano writing, which is powerful, strong and highly
effective – Holbrooke was a good pianist and recorded in this
capacity – and there’s a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, slowing
down, jovial faster material, and some amount of repeated material
in a higher register. There are also strong hints that Holbrooke
knew his Sarasate. The slow movement returns to ‘gaunt’, then
unveils new lyrical patterns with lullaby-like moments which
he tries to heighten through glamour and trills, and double
stops. There’s a degree of over-egging throughout, though when
he reprises material it’s invariably touching. The finale is
loquacious to a fault, but the lyricism, as well as the virtuosity,
is indeed welcome. Despite everything it’s got the makings of
an interesting piece, though it remains rather unfocused and
lacks true memorability of ideas and their most apposite development.
If you were Sammons, and you’d just got your hands on John Ireland’s
Second Violin Sonata, as he had, then I think you too would
find Holbrooke’s sonata frustrating.
And yet, infuriating though one sometimes finds it, I like it
more than Bantock’s superficially far more professional Viola
Sonata in F major. Marshall-Luck does what he can here, and
says that he feels that phrases should be given time to breathe
to come over most effectively. My own view as a listener, and
not performer, is that they should be given less time to breathe.
The sonata weighs in at 40 minutes and I don’t feel that so
much here justifies the length. There’s no evidence that the
obvious recipient at the time, Sammons’s good chum Lionel Tertis,
ever had a go at the work. He doesn’t even mention Bantock in
his memoirs. Considering that he motored dramatically - but
wonderfully - through Arnold Bax’s Sonata, I dread to think
what he would have done to Bantock’s.
The late romantic, quietly Brahmsian moments here are effective,
touches of a shared Elgarian inheritance too – the work was
written in 1919 when Elgar coincidentally was writing his major
chamber works. Angularity is restricted but welcome when it
arrives. From 6:00 or thereabouts in the first movement there
is a truly lovely melody. Lots going on elsewhere, of course,
but again, somewhat lacking focus. The quasi-cadential element
in the second movement adds to a forlorn spirit, and the cantabile
is good, though surely some of the passagework sounds too effortful
and deliberate at this tempo? For the finale, out of nowhere,
we have an Irish jig. Bantock did a lot of Hebridean and Gaelic
things but it’s illogical in the context of this sonata. It’s
also too easy. Even when the music slows to reflective reminiscence
– not unattractively – the whole shebang doesn’t really add
up. The sonata sports the descriptive name Colleen
which may well account for the finale, but not much else, to
me at least.
Marshall-Luck plays Gustav Holst’s viola in the Bantock and
proves a good ambassador for both works, violin and viola, and
has clearly spent much time preparing for the undertaking. The
recording is good, marginally too close to the viola over the
piano, but not damagingly so. It’s fine news that these two
pretty much ignored works have been given some careful attention.
I admit that having long wondered what The Grasshopper
was like, I’m rather disappointed — but don’t let that spoil
things for you.
see also reviews by Rob