The enterprising series of “British Composers Premiere Collections” on Cameo Classics here moves into the field of piano music with two full CDs of the piano music of Joseph Holbrooke. He is here called “Josef”, adopting his Germanised preference.
Holbrooke was highly prolific, and it is clear that these discs hardly begin to scratch the surface of his output. That said, we have the complete Rhapsodie-Etudes
and both of the Fantasie-Sonatas
although the constituent parts of the two first series are spread between the two discs and interleaved with one another. This tends to diffuse the elements of contrast and unity which the composer surely intended. However since the two discs derive from different recording sessions, this was presumably the most convenient way in which the CDs could be issued. One just wishes that with these reissues the two recordings could have been combined into a ‘twofer’ with the sets of works grouped in a manner which would allow the listener to appreciate the composer’s development over the period of some forty years spanned by this music.
The site has reviewed both these discs for this site on their initial individual releases, and the descriptions of the music together with the titles of the individual movements in the Rhapsodies-Etudes
and the Nocturnes
do not need to be repeated here (see reviews of Vol. 1
& Vol. 2
). However I note that two of the tracks on the second volume, containing two of the Futuristic Dances
Op.66, have unaccountably gone missing from this reissue. The original reviewer hoped that the other two dances from the collection would appear on a third volume of Holbrooke piano music, but their disappearance here is most odd as it does not seem that a sequel ever materialised. When they were originally issued the first of these discs was widely reviewed but the second seems to have received considerably less notice.
The first disc opens less than promisingly with the Caprice Brillant
, the first of the Op.42 pieces, which is resolutely lightweight. It is almost Satie-like in its cabaret feel, but without the French composer’s sense of charm. It is not helped by a rather shallow piano sound and a decidedly boxy and airless acoustic. Indeed the Rhapsodie-Etudes
on this disc all seem to be cut from much the same sort of cloth, pieces written for display rather than any more serious purpose. The third study, Energique
is particularly underwhelming in this regard. The Nocturnes
with which they are interspersed are more heartfelt; although published in 1939, they originate from earlier compositions but have more substance. The second, for example, draws on material from Holbrooke’s 1905 Piano Quartet
. It has a real sense of melancholy although again the piano tone and acoustic do not bring out the best in the music.
, on the other hand, influenced by the First World War, is a piece of much more ambition with its smashing fistfuls of chords and anguish-laden dissonances. If it were less difficult to play — it sounds excruciatingly challenging — one suspects that this piece would have forced its way into the repertory long ago. It looks forward to music written twenty or thirty years later, and as a depiction of the horrors of war it comprehensively outdoes Holst’s Mars.
The two Fantasie-Sonates
are also works of remarkable quality, one-movement pieces that span a wide range of techniques and indeed in places anticipate the piano music of Messiaen. There are again some passages of virtuosic note-spinning here but they do not detract from the ominous impressiveness of the writing as a whole. The sound of the piano remains somewhat claustrophobic, but less obtrusively so than in the earlier works on the disc; maybe the ear was becoming accustomed to the acoustic.
The second disc, apart from rounding out the collection of the Op.43 and Op.121 pieces, also gives us two Welsh-inspired works in the shape of the two central movements of the Celtic Suite
and the ‘concert waltz’ Talsarnau
inspired by Holbrooke’s holidays in Snowdonia. The outer movements of the Celtic Suite
arrange Manx and Scottish melodies, Holbrooke having jettisoned the Irish jigs of the original finale in the second Folk Song Suite
for string quartet, Op.72, of which this piano suite is otherwise an arrangement. The string quartet version was at one time available on LP in a performance by the Delmé Quartet (reissued on CD by the British Music Label
). The music is generally pleasant rather than earth-shattering, the third movement rather more heartfelt; and the newly composed finale has a positively Graingeresque cheekiness. Talsarnau
starts in a rollicking fashion, but is really a miniature tone poem with some disturbing undercurrents in a rather Baxian vein.
The recorded sound and acoustic on this second disc is a decided improvement on the first – possibly another reason why the Nocturnes
continue to be split between the two CDs. The three of the Nocturnes
here contain references to orchestral works such as Queen Mab, Bronwen
and both the latter are available in this form on Adrian Leaper’s Marco Polo disc issued in 1993. The eighth of the Op.42 set, with the subtitle Fantoches
, is again a Satie-like divertissement
but now it has the cock-eyed sense of satire which the music needs if it is not to be taken too seriously.
Despite my reservations about the recorded sound on the first disc, and about the quality of some of the music here, there can be nothing except praise for the fire-eating performances of Panagiotis Trochopoulos. He brings the right sense of repose to the Nocturnes
, but his playing in Barrage
for example is something quite exceptional. Nothing seems to disconcert him; and although there is plenty here which sounds fiendishly difficult, he surmounts every one of those difficulties with deceptive ease.
In his earlier years Holbrooke was championed by Sir Thomas Beecham, who gave first performances of his symphony Apollo and the Seaman
and the first of his opera trilogy based on the Welsh mythological cycle The Mabinogion
during a season at Covent Garden.
Sadly Beecham did the composer no favours with a depiction in his autobiography A mingled chime
, as a figure of fun. He described him unkindly as “a musician of natural ability handicapped by a poor aesthetic endowment and a total want of critical faculty.” I have always found this to be an ungenerous judgement on a composer whose ambition might have exceeded his grasp, but whose music nevertheless had a real sense of purpose. It is therefore unfortunate to have to report that some of the piano music on these discs, in particular the admittedly early Rhapsodie-Etudes
, go some way to justify Beecham’s criticisms. On the other hand, the Fantasie-Sonates
and particularly Barrage
demonstrate a composer at work like no other in Britain at that time.
Those who already admire the music of this British maverick will doubtless wish to explore further the range of his works available on disc with these two CDs. Those unfamiliar with Holbrooke would be recommended to first investigate one or another of his orchestral scores – his sometimes extravagant instrumentation is always ear-tickling and original, and indeed was cited with approval on a number of occasions by Cecil Forsyth in his standard textbook on Orchestration
published in 1914. We really need more Holbrooke on disc if we are to form a properly rounded judgement on his music; quite a bit of his orchestral and chamber music is available on Naxos, but a Holbrooke orchestral CD on CPO (7774422) appears to have had no successor as yet. There are quite a few of his works to be found on the internet deriving from broadcast performances, as well as isolated performances in the catalogue of individual pieces. Dutton
appear to be now beginning to excavate the Holbrooke oeuvre
as well. Those, like myself, who regard the composer as one of the most interesting ‘fringe’ composers in the roster of the British twentieth century — along with Rutland Boughton — will welcome anything the record companies can provide.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous reviews: Rob Barnett Volume 1
~~ Volume 2
Further reading: Michael Freeman’s Holbrooke articles