Englishman Joseph (or Josef) Holbrooke was an odd duck in 20th century music, an industrious, working-class composer whose ambitious and extensive oeuvre betrays his equally considerable obscurity. Regarded as one of the top young composers in England in 1900, by 1920 he was struggling for attention and by his death in 1958, completely forgotten. Holbrooke's obscurity and eccentricity, however, gained a sort of legendary status among British musicians, which may have been what Tony Oxley, Gavin Bryars, and Derek Bailey had in mind when they named their free-improvisation trio Joseph Holbrooke upon its inception in 1963. His original work, nevertheless, remains only sparsely represented on CD, and of the three works represented on CPO's Josef Holbrooke: Symphonic Poems, Ulalume has been recorded once before. However, the more the merrier as far as Holbrooke is concerned, as there is so much of his music to catch up with, and one is grateful to have his work as interpreted by Howard Griffiths, here leading the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, as he has done so well by other obscure composers such as Ahmed Adnan Saygun, Johann Wilhelm Wilms, and others.
The dramatic overture Amontillado, Op. 123 (1936), is the latest work on the program, one of no less than 35 pieces Holbrooke based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It is also the weakest of the pieces on the disc, somewhat lacking in punch and atmosphere. The specific Poe tale that inspired it, "The Cask of Amontillado," gains its sense of dread from its intimacy, relatively simple, and inexplicably evil action; the very form of the symphonic poem seems to work somewhat against elucidating such a concept whereas a chamber situation may have portrayed it better. Not so the case with The Viking (1899), a dramatic, bold, and big-boned work inspired by Longfellow's "The Skeleton in Armor" and once bearing that title. While The Viking is quite advanced for its time, Holbrooke's basic harmonic language did not move forward from here, which explains why some of his later music is dismissed as being too conservative. The Symphonic Variations on "Three Blind Mice" (1900), however, was long a concert favorite in England; it's a little long-winded, and the variations go far afield of the basic theme, even to the extent of drawing in quotations of other familiar tunes. Nevertheless, it remains a highly entertaining piece overall and contains some brilliant orchestration. Ulalume, though, is the single most outstanding work here, a piece of considerable depth and color; it also reverses the usual modus operandi of the symphonic poem, placing the emotional climax of the work in its first third, with the rest of the movement representing a sort of draining out of the subsequent impact.
Holbrooke remains so little known that it's hard to say what affect CPO's Josef Holbrooke: Symphonic Poems might have on his fortunes. Nevertheless, if one has a strong interest in post-romantic orchestral music, British composers of the era or simply programmatic, non-abstract orchestral programs, this should please, and hopefully it will lead to more from Holbrooke.