“ All the music on this disc shares a common tone and key” states
James Cook in his booklet notes on the first CD of this set,
subtitled Exequy which means ‘funeral song’. Anyone
expecting – or hoping for organ symphonies in the tradition
of Widor will find a collection less of spectacular concert
music, more a meditative English Church sound which more
often than not reminds me of the improvisatory meanderings
of organists up and down the UK, as they wait for the priest
to finish preparing for service.
The recordings are more chapel than church in acoustic, the
modern Girton College organ sounding drier and smaller in
scale, although it does have a gorgeous colour and range.
The booklet notes give a potted history of each, though there
are unfortunately no photos.
Sinfonia Lacrimosa is a “meditation on the theme of sorrow”, with only the
third movement providing some contrapuntal relief from the
reflective nature of the other three. This is not to say
that all of the music is entirely quiet – there are some
meaty moments in the first movement where the theme is given
full weight from pedals et al. I don’t have a problem
with straightforward, practical writing for any instrument.
Cook obviously knows his way around the organ, and can conjure
an attractive and varied palette. The content of the music
is also very much a question of taste.
I can imagine this set filling the gap in a collection for
which an atmosphere of safely conventional and contemplative
organ music will be a valuable addition. I am reluctant to
tar these pieces with the brush of dustily dreary quasi-religious
performance practice, since the sound-semantics of the English
organ are so bound up with church and convention that it
is virtually impossible to avoid such associations. I do
however find it hard to square the circle of Cook’s grand
titles and the music itself. Sinfonia Lacrimosa is
indeed largely slow, but I don’t find it particularly doleful. Exequy as
another example purports to have a “melody of a sadly yearning
nature” which I don’t ‘get’- it seems quite light and cheerful
to me. Sinfonietta is another promising title, but
the thematic ingredients don’t really have enough character
to carry a 20 minute piece – certainly as Cook admits that “the
musical structure is so fragmented that it resembles a mosaic” – which
to me, alas, translates as a rather messy ‘cut and paste’ job.
There are certainly some painfully banal modulations, over
which I can imagine Arthur Wills my old harmony teacher casting
baleful censure. Of the three pieces on this first disc,
this is I’m afraid the most turgid and overblown. Not even
the ‘Harry Potter’ style waltz which pops up now and again
failed to lift my sagging enthusiasm.
Moving on to disc two, the Symphonia Melodia starts
promisingly, with a striking major-minor dissonances deriving
from a two note motif. This moment of inspiration is over
in about thirty seconds however, and we’re back to the aimless
wandering in mf land. There are some Jehan Alainesque
features in this first movement which I quite like, but its
nearly 19 minute span could have been more effectively stated
in 5. The second Adagietto again has an interesting
opening, but the each time the development diffuses this
introduction. I think this is part of the problem I have
with this music – it all too often offers one thing, and
then carries on with something just different enough to make
the brain cells wonder what on earth is going on, but just
not interested enough to stay awake for the whole piece.
Cook goes into reasonable analytical detail in his notes
and has a good selling patter, but for me there is just too
much compositional stereotype to take me beyond the written
hype. The huge 25 minute Adagio final movement of
the Symphonia Melodia is portrayed as something you really want
to hear, up to and including the “huge ark (sic.) of sound”,
but the content is too diatonic, and not rescued by the occasional
shift ŕ la Frank Martin or the occasional blue or ‘wrong’ note.
Mention should be made of Plerophoria, which is the
final movement of a set of twelve vocal pieces called Dipsalma,
using texts by Puritan authors John Trapp and Thomas Doolittle.
Lucy Jack’s contralto solo is clear and fine, if with the
occasional slight ‘under the note’ moment. Cook’s accompaniment
is restrained and sensitive, but it is noticeable (to me
at least) that the dour nature of the text suits his musical
language down to the ground – it certainly invites no elaboration
or word-painting. Cook’s setting is therefore quite appropriate.
James Cook is obviously an intelligent composer, but looking
at the sheer volume of his production in the last few years
one could be forgiven for having the suspicion that, having
found a market, he’s “churnin’ ’em out”. I dislike being
critical of honest toil, but have to say that I find these
discs rather hard work at best, and ultimately unmemorable.
I’m sure there are many who will disagree, and it would appear
that Cook’s commercial undertaking - he is named as the producer
of this issue - has its own following and rewards.