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A Forgotten English Romantic
Greville COOKE (1894-1989)
Piano works (see end of review for listing)
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Nocturne (1930)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Little Piano Book (1934) (Valse Lente, Nocturne, Canon, Two-Part Invention in F, Two-Part Invention in E flat, Two-Part Invention in G)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. Turner Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton, 14-15 February 2014

The day I listened to this disc for the first time, I received a catalogue from one of the sheet music dealers I buy from. This particular list featured 20th century British piano music - including a couple of the pieces recorded here as it happened. Ignoring the 'big' names even the first few pages featured works by Arthur Alexander, Ernest Austin, William Baines, Bainton, Baldwyn, Barratt, Bath, Benbow, Benedict, Besley, Burrows and Butler. All of which served to underline that there is a vast amount of music of similar style and period and quality still waiting to be unearthed. This begs the question whether Cooke deserves such a disc as this before any of those named above. To be honest, I am not sure for all its merits it is 'better' than much of the above. However, I suppose any 'forgotten' composer needs the passionate advocacy of a performer who believes that composer to be a special case. In Duncan Honeybourne, Cooke has found just such an advocate and in EM Records a company willing to promote the project in the best possible light technically and production-wise. Recently, I have had several discs to review where the inherent quality of the music-making has been marred by poor presentation. This disc is a model of its kind with an informative, interesting and extensive liner (in English only) making the best possible case for Cooke, his life and works.

From this liner you gain a strong sense of a man fulfilled, living a rich diverse and interesting life. From talented student at the Royal Academy of Music, to performer, broadcaster, teacher and composer - as well as fulfilling a role as parish priest - to contented great old age. Indeed, I do not feel it is too much of an intuitive leap to hear this diversity and essential contentment in the music. All of Cooke's works performed here are receiving their premiere recordings. Honeybourne makes the valid point that they are well-conceived for the keyboard and they range from the big-boned Romantic Gothic Prelude which opens the disc to pastel miniatures such as Tree-top Lullaby [No.1 of the 'Over the Hills Suite']. All of the music is easily and instantly appealing and all the more so because Honeybourne plays them with total conviction and no little skill. So the large gestures of the Gothic Prelude are dispatched with virtuosic panache and the miniatures tenderly caressed with real affection. If I had one observation it would be that I did wonder if some of Cooke's 'filling-in' figurations in the bigger works have more than a hint of generic pianistic tricks. As though to keep the energy and momentum going a couple of bars are filled with double-handed broken octaves or leaping arpeggiations. Much as I enjoyed those pieces I did find it harder to hear an individual musical personality - the real Cooke. Curiously, the simpler the pieces and the more direct the utterance the more I felt that those works contained the essence of Cooke. Honeybourne mentions the charming High Marley Rest as his introduction to Cooke's music and in many ways it encapsulates the best of his work. Simple without being simplistic there is a real sense that it has been written for the simple pleasure of its creation - there is no great ego at work here just a craftsman delighting in the exercise of his Art.

The warmth and wit shines through in the delightful Bargain Basement suite too. In many ways I enjoyed this suite most of all the music on the disc. Though utterly unpretentious it has a genuine wit and plays to Cooke's strengths of gentle pastiche and miniature tone-painting. Quite deliberately it teeters on the edge of salon cliché but it such a knowing way that it avoids sounding simply trite. In the larger scale works where Cooke falls back on generic gestures I think there is the risk that some of the music becomes sub-Rachmaninov out of the Warsaw Concerto. The two collections of three pieces; Over the Hills and Three Pieces (1929) are particularly winning. Over the Hills is dedicated to 'all my grandpupils' and has the sense of pedagogic simplicity about it that challenges the musical sensitivity of young players while staying firmly within their technical compass. Honeybourne is especially successful at playing all of the music on this disc of similar 'simplicity' with a perfectly judged directness and artlessness. Likewise, in works such as Haldon Hills and Meadowsweet you feel lies the essence of the man. Few would argue that the bulk of this music is as significant or challenging as the best written by Cooke's British contemporaries from Bax to Bridge, Ireland or even York Bowen. Then again I do not think that Cooke wrote it intending it to 'compete' with those composers - that being the case it perfectly fulfils its role as beautifully crafted deeply personal expressions of a private vision.

Running to some seventy-six minutes this is a generously filled disc although I am not sure what the presence of the Holst or Vaughan Williams works is meant to add. The Holst Nocturne is interesting as much of being thoroughly un-Holstian in its impressionism as anything else. The Vaughan Williams Little Piano Book is another pedagogic work but of very limited interest indeed except for showing the composer trying his hand at two-part inventions in the style of his beloved Bach. I assume there was some other Cooke available or if not why not fill the disc with another of the 'forgotten' composers listed above? As previously mentioned, this is a beautifully presented production with interesting essays and photographs simply but clearly presented in an attractive booklet. The engineering is fine too - if I was being very picky I might suggest the piano is recorded a tad too close for my own personal preference but the recording manages well with the wide dynamic range and the instrument itself is a fine one.

A wholly enjoyable introduction to the work of a gentle-man.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: John France and Rob Barnett

Track-listing (Cooke)
‘Gothic Prelude’ (1952)
‘High Marley Rest’ (1933)
‘Whispering Willows’ (1952)
‘In the Cathedral’ (1929)
Over the Hills: A Suite of Three Short Pieces (1934) (Tree-Top Lullaby, So Fair a Field, Skip-Step)
Song Prelude (1955)
‘Cormorant Crag’ (1934)
Bargain Basement : A Suite of Seven Pieces (1936) (Good Morning, Mr Harridge, Oddment (Superior Quality), Throw-Out (Greatly Reduced), Genuine Reproduction (Excellent Value), Cheap Line (Absolutely not to be repeated), Going for a Song (Yours for a tenor, fiver, 3d), Remnant (Only one left))
‘Haldon Hills’ (Devon) (1929)
‘Meadowsweet’ (1929)
Three Pieces (1929) (A Sunny Morning, In the Park (Afternoon), An Evening Lullaby))
Sundown (1953)
‘Reef's End’ (1934)