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Josef HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Late Piano Music
Eight Nocturnes, Op 121 (1937) [33:47]
Fantasie-Sonata No 1 in A, Op 124 ‘The Haunted Castle’(1936) [13:51]
Fantasie-Sonata No 2, Op 128 ‘Destiny’ (1938) [15:47]
Cambrian Ballade No 4, Op 104 ‘Maentrog’ (c late 1930s)[6:21]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
Rec. August 2020, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
LYRITA SRCD.395 [69:51]

The Holbrooke revival continues to splutter along, much like the composer’s antediluvian motorcycle as he tore around the countryside near Harlech clinging to its handles, scaring the wits out of the locals (according to a delightful Eugene Goossens’ anecdote shared in Gareth Vaughan’s technically impressive and intermittently gossipy booklet note). A couple of years have elapsed since the release of Holbrooke’s third symphony, a rumbustious affair entitled Ships, included on the most recent volume of Howard Griffiths’ ongoing CPO survey of the composer’s orchestral music (review). Over the years other labels such as Dutton-Epoch, EM Records, Naxos and even Hyperion have facilitated further attempts to restore the name and reputation of this mercurial figure.

In his earlier review of this disc, my colleague Jonathan Woolf praised Simon Callaghan’s fine playing in this recital and made the necessary comparisons with Panagiotis Trochopoulos’ pioneering Holbrooke discs which first appeared in the ‘noughties’ and somehow passed me by. On previous discs Callaghan has repeatedly proved himself to be a distinguished and discerning torchbearer for forgotten twentieth century English piano repertoire; on this one Holbrooke himself could hardly have wished for a more dedicated advocate.

With one exception (No 7) the eight Nocturnes each incorporate and adapt material Holbrooke first used much earlier in his career, drawn from an assortment of orchestral tone poems, operas and chamber works. These pieces are at times misty and nostalgic, elsewhere more upbeat. All are tuneful, unexpectedly memorable and idiomatically conceived for the keyboard. It is quite possible that Callaghan’s jewel-like precision and tactful use of the pedal (and rubato) makes these appealing little pieces seem better than they actually are. They are each designated with subtitles, and listeners will be indebted to Gareth Vaughan for his detailed accounts of the background of each one. The first couple (named Gulnare and Donegal respectively) seem to inhabit a strange terrain which somehow blends the sound-worlds of York Bowen and Cyril Scott, and some of the progressions in the third (Juliet) would not seem out of place in a Billy Mayerl miniature. Whilst little comparisons such as these might fill the space and provide some readers with a kind of trig point to help them find their bearings, I can’t help wondering if my own very subjective impressions render such a strategy optimistic at best and futile at worst. I can say with some confidence, however that there is an internal consistency of expression and style in this music which strongly suggest that Holbrooke was ultimately his own man, and these Nocturnes indubitably fit the imaginary template of British short form piano writing in the first half of the twentieth century like a glove. Readers who respond to the piano music of the likes of Arnold Bax (especially given Holbrooke’s ubiquitous references to Celtic, specifically Welsh mythology), John Ireland and William Baines, as well as the figures mentioned earlier will surely lap up Holbrooke’s Nocturnes.

The fourth, Elan is mildly elegiac in mood, its gnomic and insistent main theme twice interrupted by a rather sentimental idea. The fifth, entitled Bridal Ballad after a rather pensive poem by Edgar Allan Poe is contrarily radiant and offers an emotional counterpoint to the stark and rather gloomy piece, entitled Bronwen which follows. Ariel, the seventh in the sequence is the only complete original; Callaghan tactfully lets the contrasts between alternating legato and staccato phrases speak for themselves in this brief Shakesperean thumbnail. The concluding number Ulalume (again after Poe) draws from Holbrooke’s early orchestral poem of 1903 (it’s been recorded at least twice); this is the most impressive and demanding of these pieces and Callaghan projects its moments of virtuosity most skilfully.

Interpolated amongst the Nocturnes are two works designated as Fantasie-Sonatas, each lasting around a quarter of an hour. The first of these, a single movement in A major entitled The Haunted Castle (yet again after Poe) dates from 1936, although Holbrooke once more recycles earlier material, in this case themes from the first movement of his Dramatic Choral Symphony, Op 48 which incorporates a setting of Poe’s eponymous poem. A rather innocent little figure dominates the first section of the work, oscillating between its presentation as an unassuming tune for the right hand and its austere, rather menacing doppelganger in the bass. At the heart of the work is a lively, syncopated dance which is not entirely devoid of darker undertones. Callaghan’s performance is exceptional, varied in its moods and rich in sepia tints which emerge most faithfully in Lyrita’s fine recording.

The Fantasie-Sonata No 2 is an entirely original composition from 1938 which bears the rather vague subtitle Destiny. There are two movements: in the brief first panel a rather strident Maestoso chordal introduction yields to a glittering, arresting Allegro idea which never truly settles. This presages Holbrooke’s development of it in the longer second movement which matures from an alternatively assertive and tentative Maestoso con moto cell into an exhilirating Con brio section which provides Callaghan with an authentic opportunity for unbridled virtuosity. This is wonderful music; it’s telling that Gareth Vaughan likens it to Messiaen – the ripe and radiant colours and progressions which tumble atop one another confirm that this far from an idle comparison. I have to say I found this Fantasie-Sonata No 2 to be unexpectedly rewarding; it’s by far the most ‘contemporary’ work on the disc and its considerable merits are enhanced on repetition. Adrian Farmer’s engineering once again does Holbrooke (and Callaghan’s superb playing) full justice.

There is one other piece, the nostalgic Cambrian Ballade No 4, named Maentrog (after a tiny hamlet nestling in the Vale of Ffestinog). Holbrooke’s music here though is not overtly topographically inspired – it seems to be a re-working of material he first used in his Horn Trio of 1902. It seems poised and effortlessly crafted in this piano form. It completes what constitutes for me a most satisfying introduction to Holbrooke’s piano music. Admirers of Simon Callaghan and aficionados of off-the-beaten-track British piano repertoire need not hesitate.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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