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James COOK (b. 1966?) 
Exequy and Elysium
CD 1
Sinfonia Lacrimosa (2005) [55:39]
Exequy (from Quaternion) (2003-4) [2:11]
Sinfonietta (2005) [22:03]
CD 2
Symphonia Melodia (2005) [55:45]
Two Sacred Fancies  (Panegyris and Elysium) (2005) [10:31]
Plerophoria* (2003-4) [6:31]
Euphony  (from Quaternion) (2003-4) [6:30]
Samuel Hudson (organ - Sinfonia Lacrimosa)
Samuel Hayes (organ)
Lucy Jack (contralto)*
rec. 14 December 2005, Girton College Cambridge (Sinfonia Lacrimosa); 16-17 August 2005, Queen’s College Cambridge
DIVINE ART 21206 [79:55 + 79:19]
 


“ 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 à 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.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 

 



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