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Arnold COOKE (1906 - 2005)
Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano (1951) [22:24]
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1937) [21:20]
Sonata No.2 for Cello and Piano (1980) [23:58]
Susanne Stanzeleit (violin); Morgan Goff (viola); Raphael Wallfisch (cello); Raphael Terroni (piano)
rec. Music Hall of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 2, 9, 16 October 2005

Experience Classicsonline

Another excellent disc from the British Music Society. In my experience their recordings are consistently of the finest artistic and musical quality allied to unobtrusive engineering that allows the music to speak naturally and effectively. And so it proves with this disc. Musically, Cooke’s star has not risen nearly as much as I feel it deserves to.

He was a contemporary of British composers including Benjamin Frankel and Elizabeth Lutyens and much like them his musical style falls between the stools of stony modernism and conservative tonality. I suspect that this led to their musical causes being relatively neglected since the supporters of either of those camps would not ally themselves to their music. According to the liner-notes Cooke’s Sixth Symphony of 1984 still waits to be performed. In view of the quality of the music here - and his recorded symphonies on Lyrita SRCD.295 and SRCD.203 - that seems nothing short of scandalous.

This well planned programme of three world premiere recordings presents three string sonatas, one each from what could be perceived as three distinct phases of Cooke’s compositional career. The first period could be characterised as breakthrough and establishment during which Cooke built a national reputation. The Viola Sonata of 1937 - which formed part of his Doctoral submission to Cambridge University in 1948 - is part of this process. So it is clear that even ten years after its composition this was a piece which the composer was both proud of and felt was representative of his body of work - and rightly so. He had been a pupil of Paul Hindemith in Berlin from 1929 to 1932 and certainly there is an athletic muscularity about this Sonata - and the choice of instrument - that recalls his teacher. The proportions of the Sonata are very pleasing: two quick movements each of around six minutes framing an impressive nine minute slow movement. This movement in turn encapsulates a faster section. What I like about Cooke is the terseness and directness of his utterance. The spectre of the Walton Viola Concerto - first performed by Hindemith - tends to hang over any British viola composition from this period. Indeed, there is a ghost of the concerto’s bustling energy in the finale but, not for a second, to the Sonata’s detriment. You never feel that there is any musical “fat” on the frame of his compositions. But this is not to imply that they are in any way dry or austere. He writes with good understanding of strings - apparently he was a good cellist himself. Morgan Goff gives a committed impassioned performance. His tone on the lower strings is rich and warm. Only during the high passage-work is there the hint of occasional strain and intonational insecurity and that only because the tone is not as full as elsewhere. Throughout the entire disc Raphael Terroni proves himself yet again to be a superb performer in the cause of British music. The engineers/producer have clearly made a choice to balance the piano slightly behind the solo string instruments. This is a perfectly valid choice although once or twice in the more tempestuous passages I wondered whether the dramatic impact of the piano writing was fractionally lessened because of that. The choice of the music hall at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama is a good one with a warm but true acoustic.

The Violin Sonata No.2 of 1951 comes from the second phase and to the confidence of the Viola Sonata is added a greater degree of lyricism and even more focused energy and rigour. What is so pleasurable about this disc is to hear the way in which the three works spring so clearly from the same compositional roots yet exhibit a maturing of the processes behind their construction. Susanne Stanzeleit is a very fine player with a richly projected tone and an ability to produce lyrical lines from wide-ranging melodies. To my ear it sounds as though the piano has been brought a tad further forward in the sound picture to the benefit of all. All three of these works are sonatas for equal protagonists and the balance here aids that impression. Without the aid of a score this sounds like very practical music - challenging for the player without posing absurd technical hurdles. Again, one of Cooke’s great abilities is to keep the feel of the music flowing forward. So even where a tempo might relax for a moment or so the music itself does not become becalmed. The slow movement has a most appealing lilting barcarolle-like feel to it - once more Cooke plunges straight into the musical argument. Really beautiful playing from both players but Terroni in particular plays with a meltingly beautiful limpid touch. Interestingly the finales of both the violin and viola sonatas are marked Allegro Vivace. The one for the violin is less leapingly driving than the viola’s equivalent and again exhibits Cooke’s great sense of proportion building to an exciting conclusion. The liner-notes include a personal reminiscence of the composer by the commissioner and first performer of the Violin Sonata - Rosemary Rapaport, one can only imagine her delight in being given the opportunity to premiere this instantly appealing work.

There is a gap of twenty-nine years until the appearance of the Cello Sonata No.2 of 1980. This opens - again no introductory material - on the same note as the Viola Sonata from forty three years earlier. But this proves to be a more reflective work - and the only one of the three to depart from the traditional three movement Sonata-form. The writing is still full of vigour but the outbursts are shorter with the overall character leaning more towards the lyrical. This is beautifully realised by Raphael Wallfisch as technically magnificent as always. I particularly like the way he is willing to pare away his tone when required to produce something intimate and poignant - the opening of the Lento (track 8) is a perfect example. Wallfisch and Terroni are long-time musical partners and there is an absolute unity of expression here that reflects that. But this is no old man’s music. The Allegro that finishes the sonata and closes the disc shows the compositional flame still burning bright.

This is a must for anyone with any interest in British chamber music of the last century. All three works are of considerable stature and are performed and recorded in an exemplary manner.

Nick Barnard

see also review by Rob Barnett


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