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Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Symphony No. 3 in E minor, Op. 90 ‘Ships’ (1925) [42:27]
The Birds of Rhiannon, Op. 87 (1923) [14:26]
The girl I left behind me’, Symphonic Variations, Op. 37 No. 2 (1905) [12:30]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern/Howard Griffiths
rec. 2016, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Großer Sendesaal, Saarbrücken, Germany
CPO 555041-2 [69:50]

The English composer Joseph Holbrooke was born in Croydon in 1878. His father, also named Joseph, was a touring musician in the music-halls. He gave his son, who adopted the German ‘Josef’ to distinguish himself, his early groundings. In 1896 it was off to the Royal Academy of Music, where he met his lifelong supporter Granville Bantock. For some years Holbrooke led a low-profile existence as a peripatetic teacher and musical director, but in 1900 all that changed when he was brought to the attention of the public after performing three of his orchestral pieces. He composed a Piano Concerto in 1907, which was premiered by Harold Bauer, and this, together with his light music, kept him in the public eye for several more years. In the 1920s he began to suffer from deafness. Whilst this did not directly affect his composing, his communicating and business skills suffered. He eventually lapsed into obscurity, and died at the age of 80. His considerable output includes eight symphonies, two piano concertos, symphonic poems, and chamber music. I was interested to read that he wrote thirty-five pieces based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

The Third Symphony was the first Holbrooke cast in three movements, and this set a precedent for the next five. It dates from 1925 but had to wait a further eleven years for a premiere. It bears the name ‘Ships’ but has also been referred to as the Nelson Symphony’ or ‘Our Navy’. Fittingly, the movements are titled ‘Warships’, ‘Hospitalships’ and ‘Merchantships’. The first movement opens with a call to arms on the horn. There are some entrancing lyrical sections, alternating with militaristic-type passages. Holbrooke portrays vividly the fickle and capricious flux of the sea. There is some attractive woodwind scoring, ravishingly played by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie players, and nicely profiled. The slow movement reflects the nature of the sick human cargo transported on the Hospitalships. There is an abiding calm, underpinned by an unobtrusive anxiety; at times, the effect is overwhelmingly soporific. A militaristic flourish ushers in the Merchantships finale. The composer aptly quotes the sea-shanty The Maid of Amsterdam. It makes several appearances throughout, broadly and nobly declaimed near the end. The movement concludes in rousing manner.

The symphonic poem The Birds of Rhiannon is a lush impressionistic score, lavishly melodic and ingeniously scored, emitting a panoply of orchestral colour. Rhiannon, a character from Welsh mythology, is possessed with magical powers, and the three birds of Rhiannon have the power to wake the dead and send the living to sleep. The birds appear at the end of Holbrooke’s opera Branwen, following the death of Bran and Branwen. Branwen forms the last part of his operatic trilogy The Cauldron of Annwn. The symphonic poem draws on themes from the trilogy. It is a spellbinding score, deserving of much wider currency. It was written in 1925 and received its premiere in 1925 by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, conducted by Sir Dan Godfrey.

Holbrooke took a popular marching tune, sung by troops on their way to battle, for his orchestral variations ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. The work was premiered at the Queens Hall in London in 1905, with the composer at the helm of the Ostend Kursaal Orchestra. The theme, introduced in boisterous fashion, is followed by fifteen variations. Each is brilliantly orchestrated and reveals a wealth of imagination and ingenuity. Variation 10 gives the briefest hint of Dibdin’s Tom Bowling. Overflowing with exuberance, the whole thing is terrific fun.

Howard Griffiths directs assured and vibrant performances. This is one of those CDs which give pleasure from beginning to end. It aroused my curiosity enough to make me want to explore Holbrooke’s compositions further.

Stephen Greenbank

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