Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Three String Sonatas

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

A study of the CD catalogues shows that there is precious little of Arnold Cooke’s music currently accessible. Through the good offices of Lyrita, it is possible to hear the First and the Third Symphonies, the Concerto for String Orchestra and the Jabez and the Devil Suite. Hyperion has ensured that the clarinet works are well represented, with the Concerto No. 1, the Quintet and the Sonata still available. Over and above these, there are a few songs and that is about it. So it is good that the British Music Society have re-released this fine CD of three important chamber works. The CD was originally published as a part of the Cooke Centenary celebrations.

Rob Barnett in his review at the time of the original release has suggested that “Arnold Cooke is of the unfashionable Cheltenham generation of composers active … during the period 1945-75”. He further notes that “their time may not yet have come…” Eric Wetherell in the only study of the composer available has suggested that the standard view of Cooke is that “as a disciple of Hindemith, he must be rather less worthy of attention than his teacher.” That would be like saying Beethoven was less valuable that Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. However Wetherell concludes his point by insisting that “a careful and sustained examination of Cooke’s work reveals that the similarities are superficial and that his (Cooke’s) individual characteristics far outweigh his indebtedness to his master.” Certainly studying critical comment reveals a certain imbalance of views on the influence of Hindemith that will only be fully resolved when the vast majority of Cooke’s music is available to the listener.

The three works presented on this CD are selected from some ten Sonatas that Cooke wrote over a period 45 years. The earliest piece here is the Sonata for Viola which was composed in 1937 - this was one of the works that the composer submitted for his Doctorate at Cambridge before his career was interrupted by war service. It was dedicated to Keith Cummings and Lucy Pierce and was first performed at the Aeolian Hall in 1937. This is a three movement sonata that has unfortunately been described as relying on pattern-making - perhaps referring to the ‘motoric’ rhythms that crop up most especially in the outer movements. However the heart of his work is the profound ‘andante con moto’. Any suggestion that there is no warmth or depth of feeling here is manifestly wrong. This is an important ’prentice work that still demands our attention.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano No.2 was written in 1951 and was commissioned by Gerard Heller for Rosemary Rapaport (see below) and Else Cross. It received its first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 17 May 1951. This was the year of the Festival of Britain and it is surely not without good reason to suggest that the confidence generated in a war-weary but optimistic country is present in this work - especially in the opening movement. Once again the heart of this work is the ‘andante’. It would be ingenuous to suggest that this music in any way belongs to the ‘pastoral’ school of music, yet there is something of the open air here: something that is both reflective and valedictory. This is truly lovely music that both moves and inspires. However this mood is blown away by the ‘allegro vivace’ - we are back to a more cosmopolitan setting that certainly manages to be both exciting and just a touch sentimental. There is a lyrical theme that emerges every so often that manages to push the energetic music to one side. However it is a fugato theme that closes the work and ensures that the work ends on a positive note.

The final work on this CD is the great Cello Sonata No.2 - it is also the latest, having been composed in 1979-1980. However, the work had to wait for over quarter of a century before being given its first performance on 4 November 2006 in Gresham’s School in Norfolk, with the present soloists presiding. The Cello Sonata is written in four well-balanced movements. On face value this is a much deeper work than the Violin or Viola sonatas yet perhaps this is simply because lyrical themes seem to predominate. However, this is not the full story. After an attractive ‘lento’ the short ‘scherzo’ is fun and gives a backward glance to the achievements of the Cheltenham composers. The final movement is an inspired balance between the lyrical and the energetic. In keeping with much of Arnold Cooke’s output the closing bars are vigorous and leave the listener in no doubt as to the generally positive nature of the music.

I think that my only complaint about this CD is the paucity of information about each work. There is a good pen-portrait of the composer, with all the necessary biographical detail to be able to enjoy this CD. However each of the sonatas is disposed of in about forty words each. There is also an interesting ‘personal reminiscence’ by Rosemary Rapaport, a violinist and a music teacher who founded the Purcell School for musically gifted children and a long-time friend of the composer.

The playing by the three soloists and the pianist is satisfying and sympathetic and ultimately convincing. Rob Barnett has suggested that “none of these sonatas are in any way dissonant or difficult” but wonders “if there is some discouragement to communication it is their emotional reserve”. The reviewer quoted in the 2008 Penguin Guide to Classical Music notes that all “three performances are most persuasive and truthfully recorded, if lacking a little in resonant warmth.” One contemporary reviewer suggested that Cooke’s music “is certainly economical, but it is an economy achieved by drying out emotion.” However, this argument about the lack of warmth and emotion is spurious. Music can contain a huge variety of emotion and interest: it should be judged on this diversity rather than possession of a feel-good factor. Would we banish the hard-driven Bartók Piano Sonata simply because it did not pull the heart strings in quite the same way as Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto? Surely not.

This is essential listening for all enthusiasts of British music but more importantly these are three sonatas that stand up well in their own right as a vital contribution to the corpus of European chamber music. It is a tired argument to suggest that because Cooke is deemed to belong to the Cheltenham generation of composers, these works should be ignored.

John France

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Nick Barnard 

Arnold Cooke webpages