Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Joseph Holbrooke: Chamber Music on Naxos

Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Violin Sonata No.1 (Sonatina), Op.6a (1890s); Horn Trio in D (original version) Op.28 (c.1906); Violin Concerto ‘The Grasshopper’ (Violin Sonata No.2) Op.59 (1909-1916); Mezzo-Tints, Op.55 No.2- L’Extase (1913)
Kerenza Peacock (violin) Mark Smith (horn) Robert Stevenson (piano)
NAXOS 8.572649 [74:59]

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). They were originally published in 1918; however it is not possible to assign a date of composition.
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 to 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 a great emotional depth in this work: 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 listeners attention.
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 enjoyably all the same. There may well be a touch of Mendelssohn about this music, but it does not really matter.
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 end.

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 the work is regarded as being technically more demanding than the Brahms work. George Lowe has written that ‘this 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 Don Juan:-
‘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 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 work.
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’s) 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.’ The piece may have been inspired (in part) by 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 of poetry.
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 worth pointing out that the work exists in three incarnations – the concerto with orchestra, the (reduced) concerto with piano and the “sonata” (with the slightly simplified last movement). It is important to note that the ‘difficult’ version of the fiddle part is performed in the last movement.
This is a lovely sonata that is chock-full of good tunes for the soloist and an interesting piano part for the accompanist. 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 the work however it is more in the classical tradition than a romantic tour de force between soloist and pianist,
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.
One final point: 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 concerti, 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 Josef 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 every programme note writer 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 Josef Holbrooke’s music: even the briefest glance at the catalogues will suggest a number of avenues worth of exploration.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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