Symphonic Poems/Holbrooke

August 17, 2009


Holbrooke picture

From the very first listen this new CPO # 777 442-2 release of Holbrooke’s Symphonic Poems got my attention and immediately got me to wondering why I had not listened to this composer before. The CD notes, quite extensive, told the sad story of how Josef ended in obscurity in spite of his efforts at self-promoting. From the little material that I was able to read about him it became quite clear that Josef composed in the wrong century and was born in the wrong country, as England wasn’t exactly a hot bed for composers. His style didn’t fit in the 20th century. His remarks of England were quite caustic and reflecting back on history one can certainly see why he had the attitude he did. He deserves a much better fate than obscurity.

Holbrooke had an obsession about putting the prose of Poe to music, having done it 35 times. “Amontillado,” Dramatic Overture, op. 123 was written in 1936 but not premiered until 1946 exactly 100 years after Poe wrote the story “The Cask of Amontillado.” The 9+ minute work consists of themes, which are used and melded together in an orchestral arrangement, which is easily accessible for the average listener. You’ll hear a bright and sprightly theme featuring strings, crisp percussion, and brass as well as a melancholy one from the woodwinds.

“Ulalume,” Orchestral Poem No. 3, opus 35 is based on a poem by Poe about the loss of a woman in his life, and is a good venue for a symphonic orchestral work. Overall on the dark side, there is a portion of quiet reflection, a romantic interlude, as well as action and tense moments.

“The Viking,” Orchestral Poem No. 2, op. 32 has a love theme straight from a film like Rebecca. Intermixed with this theme are action moments which are similar to tone poems such as “The Isle of the Dead” from Rachmaninoff or “The Island” from Sainton. Originally called “The Skeleton in Armour” this symphonic poem is also fairly accessible to the listener as the orchestral arranging of Holbrooke is most pleasing to the ear.

“Three Blind Mice-Symphonic Variations on an Old English Air,” op. 37, No. 1 is just a fun piece to listen to filled with a lot of musical fun. While the piece really doesn’t fit with the dark and brooding nature of the other three it does show off the versatile side of Josef.

While this reviewer has never heard any of these particular works before it certainly sounds like the Brandenburg State Orchestra of Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths have the right amount of enthusiasm for the works. The recording is done properly with a nice emphasis being placed when appropriate. I site the percussion in “Amantillado” as an example. I also found the liner notes to be quite extensive including small score examples as well as a complete explanation on how the work ended up being written.

In conclusion I found this work of Holbrooke to be a wonderful new discovery for me. This is one CD that even a person with limited classical listening experience would find extremely satisfying. I hope that CPO will choose to record more of this sadly neglected composer. Recommended

CD# is CPO 777 442-2

Track Listing:

1.… Amontillado (9:26)

2.… The Viking (19:02)

3.… Three Blind Mice (14:37)

4.… Ulalume (12:56)

Total Time is 56:26


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