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Josef Holbrooke: Violin Concerto ""The Grasshopper"" - The Raven - Auld Lang Syne
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When the symphonic poem The Raven after Edgar Allan Poe celebrated it's premiere in London in March, 1900, the critics showered hymns of praise on his work so rich in unique orchestral colors and on it's young composer Josef Holbrooke. It brought him his breakthrough and firmly established his reputation as an innovative and original contemporary composer. There are certainly many settings of Poe's poem, but Holbrooke was the first composer who did not merely set the text but used it as the poetic basis for his first ""Poem for Orchestra."" Holbrooke's idiom was the musical language of the late nineteenth century obliged to the primacy of expression, and he enriched it with his constant quest for new tonal effects. In his orchestral variations on the beloved Scottish folk song ""Auld Lang Syne"" he again displays his extraordinary gift for employing his absolutely inexhaustible inventive talent and fine feeling for harmony in order to endow simple song forms with subtle expressive variety.
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He often attacked critics and even his audience. "Mr. Josef Holbrooke steps forward somewhat adventurously... to an apathetic public, and hopes to receive as few blows as possible (with the usual financial loss) in return," he wrote for a concert program. After the war, his music was seen as increasingly old-fashioned. And without supporters, it soon disappeared from the English concert repertoire.
So how does Holbrooke's work sound today? It's definitely music of its time -- but some of the best-constructed music of that time.
The 1906 "Variations on "Auld Lang Syne" are quite imaginative. Inspired by Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Holbrooke created twenty variations, each a portrait of a friend. While not on par with "Enigma," the variations do go in unexpected directions. They remind me of Charles Ives' treatment of "America," as some variations have a hint of music hall and other popular music. I'm surprised this hasn't become a classical radio staple for New Year's Eve.
A 1917 review of Holbrooke's violin concerto claimed, "Here the composer was at his best: the music may almost be said to be overflowing with milk and honey." The harmonies are certainly rich enough. And while the melodies are sweetly beautiful, the violinist is presented with plenty of challenges. Violinist Judith Ingolfsson's exciting performance keeps the milk and honey to a minimum, letting the structure of the work shine through the sentimentality.
Holbrooke's breakout composition, "The Raven" reflected his love of Edgar Allen Poe.I think it's the weightiest work of the album. Holbrooke was once called the "Cockney Wagner," and there are echoes of "Tristan and Isolde" in this work. Like Wagner's score, there's an underlying sense of disquiet and tragedy running through the score. A disquiet that's in tune with the timbre of the poem. Of the three works on this release, "The Raven" was the one I returned to most often.