Callaghan... is spry, vivid and full of optimistic romance and is clearly the superior technician...These are strong works in their own right and deserve a good hearing and in Callaghan’s expert performances that is precisely what they receive.
Solo piano music was one of the most grievously overlooked areas of Holbrooke’s discography until Panagiotis Trochopoulos recorded two CDs back in 2008-09, recordings now to be found on Cameo Classics. Not only were these first ever recordings but they were, in many cases, first public performances and so admirers of the composer owe a great debt to the pianist and to engineer David Kent-Watson and producer Gareth Vaughan for adding so handsomely to Holbrooke’s representation on disc.
Now comes Simon Callaghan, already well versed in the music of Roger Sacheverell Coke, Percy Sherwood, Sterndale Bennett and Parry – amongst others – with a single disc that further affirms Holbrooke’s qualities in what is termed his ‘late’ music, as the music dates from 1936-38.
The Nocturnes are programmed in batches throughout the recital and the Fantasie-Sonate Nos 1 and 2 act as marker posts between them. Trochopoulos’s solution was to alternate the Nocturnes with the much earlier Rhapsodie-Etudes Op.42 and add the Celtic Suite, Op.72 and the concert valse Talsarnau, Op.79. So, whilst Opp 121, 124 and 128 overlap in both men’s programmes, other things don’t.
It strikes me that Callaghan and Trochopoulos have very different conceptions of the music. Callaghan is more mobile, decisive in phrasing and overtly virtuosic whilst Trochopoulos tends to see Holbrooke through a glass, darkly, stressing the music’s melancholy and weight. Their views are creatively complimentary, and it has been instructive to listen to their performances side by side. Where Callaghan plays the second Nocturne, ‘Donegal’ in a clipped, folkloric way, Trochopoulos finds in the music a sense of loss – though if you turn to the original music on which Holbrooke based this Nocturne, the second movement of his own Piano Quartet in G minor, you will find a comparable jollity, not least in the composer’s own 1919 truncated recording with the Philharmonic String Quartet players.
The darkness, the funereal element, is again stressed by the Greek pianist in Nocturne 4 ‘Elan’ and No.6 ‘Bronwen’. In the only Nocturne that Holbrooke didn’t base on one of his pre-existing compositions, Nocturne No.7, one finds Callaghan sprite-like and duly aerial whilst Trochopoulos is rather ponderous. To cut a longish story short, engaging though Trochopoulos remains, he lacks Callaghan’s qualities of incision and characterisation and is let down by his recorded sound, especially in the British location; the French-recorded sound is somewhat better.
The first Fantasie-Sonate involves musical recycling once again, whereas the second doesn’t. Fortunately, Gareth Vaughan in his authoritative notes gives chapter and verse on the origins of the music. Callaghan beautifully brings out the music hall elements implicit in the First as indeed he does the music’s considerable theatrical bravura and stylistic breadth. Holbrooke was a formidable pianist in his day and certainly knew his Liszt, as he shows here. The Second Fantasie-Sonate opens in a rather Debussian way before adding more of Holbrooke’s music hall knockabout infatuations. Holbrooke’s obsessive allusions to Stephen Foster’s Poor Old Joe could serve as both a leitmotif and almost as a whimsical, maybe even serio-comic reference to the composer himself (he was widely known as ‘Joe’). It’s good to hear so sensitive and thoughtfully voiced a performance of the Cambrian Ballade No.4, supposed to have been recorded in the late 1930s.
I won’t jettison my Trochopoulos discs. They’re not that well recorded and their pianos are hardly the finest specimens, but Trochopoulos offers an intriguingly dark slant on Holbrooke. Callaghan by contrast is spry, vivid and full of optimistic romance and is clearly the superior technician. This is the disc to go to for Holbrooke’s later works and I do hope that Lyrita have taped him – or will tape him – in the earlier solo piano music. If you imagine that these piano pieces are merely skeletal abstractions, watered down versions of pieces like Queen Mab, Ulalume and other large-scale pieces on which they are based, I think you are in for a surprise. These are strong works in their own right and deserve a good hearing and in Callaghan’s expert performances that is precisely what they receive.
The music on this album dates from the composer’s later years, and are largely based on themes from his earlier successes. The inspiration for Holbrooke’s music was almost always literary; hence, the large number of symphonic poems and pieces with literary titles or subtitles in his work list.
The 8 Nocturnes, Op. 121 employ material from some of Holbrooke’s most successful and popular earlier works. The music critic Ernest Newman, in an often quoted appreciation of the composer written in 1902, wrote that “…Holbrooke can do quite easily and unconsciously what [Richard] Strauss has only done half a dozen times in his career – he can write a big, heartfelt melody that searches us to the very bone…”, and these Nocturnes display Josef’s gift for lyricism. The two Fantasie-Sonatas, Opp. 124 & 128 respectively, are important and substantial works from Holbrooke’s later years. The first is closely based on the opening movement of the Dramatic Choral Symphony ‘Homage to E.A. Poe’, Op. 48 (1902-1907), but skilfully adapted for pianistic effectiveness. The second Fantasie-Sonata, ‘Destiny’, does not recycle earlier material: it is an entirely original composition of two movements. Based on the slow movement of the fine Horn Trio, Op. 28 (1902), Cambrian Ballade No. 4 Op. 104 Maentrog commences in the lilting character of a berceuse. A more animated central section leads to an ardent reprise of the opening theme and a coda like a sudden shower of rain. It is tempting to think that in this composition the composer looked back wistfully to a period when his creative fires burned brightly and his talents were recognized by the musical world.