These two English piano concertos in the grand romantic tradition were written at almost the same time (Holbrooke 1908, Wood 1909) and were undoubtedly inspired by the great concertos of the previous few decades such as those of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.
The Holbrooke piece, like so much of his music, has a literary inspiration, in the form of the poem 'The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd' which the score follows closely. Indeed the composer originally described the work as a symphonic poem though he later changed his mind and settled on Piano Concerto No 1 when he revised the work in 1923—the version recorded here. (Incidentally, we have it on good Welsh authority that 'Nudd' is pronounced 'Neeth').
Though Haydn Wood later made his name writing shorter pieces of light music his early concerto is in full blown romantic style complete with first movement cadenza and 'big tune' grand finale. Its emotional heart, though, is in the simple but moving slow movement. This is the work's first recording and it appears not to have been played since 1951.
The musical age that was ended by August 1914 had seen an enormous expansion of the circuit for touring virtuosi, then, as now, London being one of the biggest centres for artists from abroad. Visiting pianists included d’Albert, Busoni, de Pachmann, Dohnányi, Hoffmann, Lamond, Sapellnikoff, Edward Macdowell, Leonard Borwick and Emil Sauer, and thus the popularity of Romantic piano concertos was considerable, and in the later years of the nineteenth century, all the now most popular works of the repertoire were heard in London, including concertos by Tchaikovsky (1889), Brahms (No 1, 1872; No 2, 1882), Grieg (1874), Glazunov (No 1, 1913), Macdowell (No 2, 1900), Rachmaninov (No 1, 1900; No 2, 1902; No 3, 1911) and Arensky (1903), and also examples by many of the pianists themselves.
In England many young composers followed their example, and the emergence of a notable group of young British pianist-composers saw many Romantic piano concertos by them written and performed. Between 1895 and 1915 there were more than twenty, most (but not all) now forgotten, including concertos by Walthew, Rosalind Ellicott, Crowther, Stanford, Cowen, Harry Farjeon, Bowen, Tapp, Edward Isaacs, Delius, Montague Phillips, Hinton, Howells, Kathleen Bruckshaw, Walford Davies, Cyril Scott, Ames, Julian Clifford, Dixon, Welton Hickin, Macpherson, Matthay and Speaight. Typical of these was the Concerto by Haydn Wood completed and performed in 1909, and the Song of Gwyn ap Nudd by Joseph Holbrooke completed in 1908 and first performed in 1910.
The emergence of Joseph Holbrooke as a composer and pianist around the turn of the century is an example of a working-class musician making good out of sheer talent and need to make a living. Born in Croydon, he first appeared as a pianist at Collins Music Hall in 1890. He attended the Royal Academy of Music as a composition pupil of Frederick Corder and a contemporary of Granville Bantock, who helped him later. Trying to make a living as a composer in 1900, without any form of financial backing, must have been difficult indeed. Holbrooke launched his reputation that year when August Manns at the Crystal Palace performed his tone poem The Raven, and Holbrooke soon followed it with a succession of extravagant literature-influenced orchestral and choral works including The Viking, Ulalume, Byron, Queen Mab and The Bells, all of which seemed to announce him as a forward-looking, original and resourceful composer. Dubbed ‘the Cockney Wagner’ by the journalist Hannen Swaffer before the First World War, Holbrooke looked set to become a big name, but his moment was brief and his idiom, which might be simplistically summarised as ‘Straussian’, was soon seen as passé.
Some of his music was championed by the young conductor Thomas Beecham, who retained one or two of Holbrooke’s orchestral works in his repertoire almost to the end. But Holbrooke’s star faded after the Second World War and he became an increasingly cranky and forgotten figure. One only has to look in the archives of such organisations as the BBC or the Carnegie UK Trust to see how his aggressive and intemperate correspondence reinforced their view of him as an anachronism, and this has meant that he and his music have not been properly assessed by today’s audience. However, among his most lasting works are the present Piano Concerto (a second followed in 1928 but was much less successful) which appears to have evolved during Edwardian days. It was first heard at Queen’s Hall on 21 November 1910, with Harold Bauer as soloist and Holbrooke himself taking the baton in what was actually a Hans Richter concert.
Holbrooke wrote several operas, and his Wagnerian cycle The Cauldron of Annwyn set libretti derived from Welsh Legends by his patron Lord Howard de Walden, writing as T E Ellis. These were produced between 1912 and 1929. The first opera of the cycle, The Children of Don, was later staged at the Vienna Volksoper in 1923. However, the first of Ellis’s poems to be given musical treatment by Holbrooke was The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd, in which the music is intended to illuminate the poem.
Earlier, during his first successes with orchestral tone-poems, Holbrooke had produced two other works for piano and orchestra: a Poème first heard at Bournemouth in April 1901, and later a Piano Concerto Dramatique also given at Bournemouth a year later. The extent to which these may have been earlier versions of The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd is not known, though in its first published version the work is subtitled ‘Poem for Piano and Orchestra’, and so it would seem possible that the Poème may have been an earlier version, a suspicion reinforced by the fact that in one catalogue the composer dates it to 1905. However, in a programme-note, Holbrooke tells us that the Concerto was composed in the years 1906/08, and all the printed full scores are dated ‘Hornsey 25 November 1908’. The two-piano score dates the revision here recorded to September 1923.
Between the wars, Holbrooke’s music continued to be found in concert programmes, but after the Second World War, apart from a few Beecham performances, particularly of Ulalume, his music was almost completely forgotten. All that remained to remind one of him were some 78rpm recordings, including an early Clarinet Quintet, brief extracts from his operas, and The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd.
The performing history of the Concerto is extensive, and as well as London and later several broadcasts, it enjoyed quite a few hearings in the provinces, being heard four times at Bournemouth between 1913 and 1923, and there were at least another half-dozen performances round the country between the wars. Its first performance at Bournemouth was given by the child prodigy Rita Neeve, later a Schnabel pupil and accompanist of Tito Schipa. Its second London performance was at the London Palladium, where Beecham promoted it at a National Sunday League Concert on 28 January 1912 with Holbrooke himself as soloist. After the First World War, in November 1921, it was performed in Queen’s Hall by Pouishnoff, after which Holbrooke revised the score, inserting the present cadenza towards the end of the third movement, and changing the ending. This version was performed by Lamond in a Weingartner concert at Queen’s Hall on 28 May 1923. It was later broadcast by Sir Dan Godfrey with Frank Merrick as the piano soloist on 16 April 1936, a performance which survives because Holbrooke had it recorded off the air on acetate discs and had copies made – one of the very earliest examples of ‘demo discs’. After the war there were broadcasts in July 1947, January and June 1954 and on 22 March 1958 Frank Merrick performed it for the last time with Norman del Mar conducting. Later it was briefly taken up by the Hull Youth Orchestra, but before the present recording it had not enjoyed a fully professional performance for over forty years.
The programme-note for the first performance of Holbrooke’s Concerto refers to the work as a symphonic poem. All of Holbrooke’s early orchestral works are designated ‘orchestral poems’, of which the Concerto is the seventh and last. The subject is based on a Welsh legend as retold by Lord Howard de Walden (T E Ellis). At this time Holbrooke’s orchestral music tended to be based on poetry, a particular favourite being Edgar Allan Poe, and the words were printed throughout the scores, telling the story.
Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Faerie, is the lover of Cordelia, daughter of Ludd or Lear, familiar from Shakespeare’s play. He fights for her with Gwythyr ap (i.e. the son of) Greidawl on the first of May each year ‘until the day of doom’. Much of Holbrooke’s music evokes atmosphere or characters rather than underlining action. However, Celtophobes should not turn away, for the music can be enjoyed as a straightforward Romantic piano concerto; for those who wish to follow the story the full poem as printed in the score appears below with the CD entry points before each appearance of a quotation in the full score.
Holbrooke constantly adjusted his music, and readers referring to the full score published by Cramer in 1909, or the two-piano score published by Chester in 1923, will find that neither reflects all the changes which Holbrooke made. The version recorded here represents his final revision. As an example of this, he constantly changed the tempo indications, and those printed here include some manuscript amendments made on the printed two-piano score of 1923.
The music starts with a lugubrious repeated rising motif played by the lower strings, almost as if to say ‘Once upon a time’. In total contrast, the piano’s entry with splashy octaves (Holbrooke has added ‘fuoco’ to my copy of the two-piano score) announces a virile protagonist and the orchestra responds with the almost martial first subject, immediately repeated fortissimo by the soloist, whose music is marked ‘Appassionato’. This is presumably a musical portrait of Gwyn ap Nudd, and almost immediately the soloist adds a surging heartfelt pendant, as if to emphasise the romantic side of his character, the latter part of the theme including the rising dotted motif from the introduction, which constantly returns. Almost immediately the piano runs on with a fourth idea (track 2) characterising the fleeting shadowy nature of the elfin band which constantly recurs (for example at [track 5]). Finally the piano races on to bring the opening motif into focus as a theme proper, re-stated by the orchestra amid a torrent of notes on the piano (track 3). This rounds off the first subject group. All four ideas reappear throughout the first movement.
Throughout the work there appear brief interludes as if the storyteller is surveying the scene before going on. The first of these (track 4) leads straight into the lyrical and Romantic second subject at the words ‘Fret not the face of the sleeping lake’; in fact this is surely a musical portrait of Cordelia, and this theme should be remembered, for it reappears at the end of the Concerto and returns at the most impassioned point of the first movement. The tune is taken up on the strings and built to a Romantic climax accompanied by the piano’s decorative figuration. After the story has been developed with the interplay of the various ideas so far identified, the soloist returns with the Cordelia theme (track 8) leading to a brilliant coda, consisting of a scherzo-like espisode of running quavers (track 9).
In the earlier versions of the Concerto the music played on continuously, ‘Segue’ appearing in the score. Later, Holbrooke envisaged making a short break between the first two movements, as we have here. Yet the mood continues, the change of scene almost anticipating ‘cross-cutting’ as in the cinema. At the beginning of the slow movement (track 10) the horn’s falling call is quickly taken up by the soloist who, unaccompanied, announces the main theme which is played at length. The strings when they finally respond are muted, giving the music a slightly spectral, twilight quality. Indeed, the mood seems to be a threatening one, not quite sure what is to come. In contrast, the scherzando middle section seems to suggest a salon encore of the period, almost a waltz, all delicate dancing and piano decoration (track 11). But soon the mood of the opening section returns and the solo piano makes a Romantic statement of the main theme (track 12) taken up by the strings. The music runs on into the third movement (track 14).
For his faery battle music, the conflict gradually dispelled by the onset of dawn, Holbrooke writes a whirlwind orchestral scherzo, the opening theme soon propelled by piano interjections and followed by the piano stating a second theme derived from the rising dotted figure from the opening of the Concerto. A succession of fleet-footed episodes introduce two further themes, the second again referring back to the first movement, before reaching the extended cadenza which ranges from dreamy introspection to brilliant exhibitionism and gradually reintroduces the theme of Cordelia from the first movement, at first as though half remembered from long ago. When the closing coda is reached the orchestra, now exultant, presents the Cordelia theme in all its languorous Romantic splendour. This is, indeed, the love song of Gwyn ap Nudd.
Haydn Wood was born in Slaithwaite, Yorkshire, on 25 March 1882, but has always been associated with the Isle of Man and regarded as its leading composer because his parents moved there when he was two. In an age of child prodigies, Haydn Wood appeared as a young violinist, and became a student of Arbós at the Royal College of Music where he was also a composition pupil of Stanford. At the age of 22, he toured the world with the famous singer Emma Albani, accompanying her on the violin.
We do not know quite how long he was working on this large-scale Piano Concerto, which he completed in 1909. It was first heard at a Patron’s Fund Concert at Queen’s Hall on 14 July 1909, with Ellen Edwards, a recent graduate of the RCM, as soloist and Stanford conducting. It reappeared at Queen’s Hall on 2 June 1913 with another now-forgotten lady pianist, Tina Lerner, as soloist, and no less a conductor than Mengelberg. It surfaced for a third time at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert during the First World War, on 26 August 1915, when Sir Henry Wood conducted and yet another now-forgotten pianist, Auriol Jones, was the soloist.
After the Concerto, Wood’s career took a completely new turn, largely influenced by his wife, the singer Dorothy Court, with whom he went on the halls and for whom he wrote a succession of popular songs. His song Roses of Picardy, one of the most successful hits of the First World War, brought him fame and sold over a million-and-a-quarter copies. Subsequently he turned to musical comedy as a composer, and his musical play Tina from 1915 was an early gramophone hit with at least half-a-dozen recordings of selections from it available during the War. By then he already had a number of successes with popular orchestral encores, and while, from time to time, he continued to produce serious concert works, he earned his living from his light music and popular songs. As with all light-music composers of the time, it was sometimes difficult to decide where one genre ended and the other began.
He was one of the three outstanding British composers between the wars who developed what became known as ‘light music’, the others being Eric Coates and Montague Phillips. Although Wood tended to find himself in the shadow of Coates, he produced a considerable repertoire of orchestral music and songs, both fields in which Coates excelled. Wood also espoused more serious works and in later years wrote both a violin concerto and his Philharmonic Variations – a sort of latter-day Rococo Variations – for cello and orchestra.
Thus for many years the Piano Concerto was forgotten, but in 1936 a BBC performance was announced with Wilfrid Parry as soloist – though, in the event, on that occasion Wood’s more recently composed Violin Concerto was a last-minute substitute when the pianist injured his arm. But the Piano Concerto was indeed broadcast on 11 September 1937.
During 1939 the work enjoyed a brief vogue in South Africa where it was first heard in a SABC broadcast on 7 March 1939 and subsequently broadcast three more times in October and November. It was revived by the BBC in 1951 and 1952 but has not been heard since until now.
The Concerto opens with an extended orchestral introduction which foreshadows the thematic material of the first movement. The first subject is announced by the piano in a bravura display in octaves leading to an extended climax and an orchestral motif which will recur at the end of the third movement. The lyrical second subject, marked ‘Tranquillo’, follows and generates much decorated piano writing and a secondary rising triplet motif in thirds introduces a musing quiet episode. An extended treatment of the first subject eventually leads to the cadenza and the coda which develops and ornaments the second subject before the brilliant close.
In the compact central ‘Andante’ the strings are muted, their singing somewhat plain, and this opening contrasts the decorated character of the piano writing. In the middle section the piano plays its song in octaves between the hands. This grows to a climax and then subsides as the opening music returns, the strings now playing ppp. The piano’s simple song returns and it sinks to the quiet close.
The Finale returns to the display of the opening. A falling horn motif and punctuating orchestral chords introduce the piano playing runs in thirds, and the keyboard display is increasingly active. Twice the orchestra tries to introduce new, more lyrical, material but the piano is master and eventually rouses the orchestra to its full power, which stimulates the piano to a triumphal passage in octaves. This introduces an episode based on a new theme. Overall, the first subject group consists of two themes; this is followed by the second subject, but there are also two additional ideas. The shape is A–B–A–C–C–D–E–B–A–C–F, almost as if the composer set out to write a rondo but modified his ideas halfway through. The return of the opening orchestral theme presages the coda, which is a grand version of the second subject, and the end comes with a reminiscence of the third idea from the opening movement.
'Extremely well played by Hamish Milne and the excellent BBC Scottish Symphony. If you are attracted by the repertoire, give it a try: you will not be disappointed.' (International Record Review)
'Superlative performances of two forgotten British gems ... An altogether exemplary release.' (Gramophone)
'The playing is first class and the recording is super' (American Record Guide)
'Marvellous performances and recording' (Hi-Fi News & Record Review)
'Hamish Milne plays "to the manner born" in his elegant and mesmerizing realization of both scores. A must for the "Romantic" collector' (Fanfare, USA)
'One for the end of year awards. An outstanding issue in every way' (Classic CD)