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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Three String Sonatas
Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1951) [22.19]
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1936-7) [21.14]
Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano (1979-1980) [23.59]
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
NAXOS 8.571362 [67.33]

What made Arnold Cooke somewhat different from some of his contemporaries is that he did not study composition completely in England. Instead he looked to the Continent and specifically to Paul Hindemith between the wars. He also came under the influence of another progressive, Edward Dent who had been Cooke's tutor at Cambridge.

There have been times when listening to Cooke's music that I feel I could be listening to Hindemith so strong was the shadow cast. The Violin Sonata's outer movements are typical: driving rhythm and counterpoint, always searching and chromatic in its melodic shapes but ultimately tonal. The Cooke Third Symphony recorded in the 1970s on Lyrita introduced me to Cooke's music and I have often come back to that work for sheer pleasure. Bearing that in mind it may seem inappropriate to have on the CD cover a scene of a rural English idyll, the remotely set church in the hamlet of Horsmonden in the heart of Kent. However on listening to the Violin Sonata's lyrical slow movement one immediately hears, an English voice. In any event, Cooke lived in that part of Kent for the last years of his long life. One of his final works was for the organ at Tudeley church in 1989. This is the church where you can see the famous Chagall windows - In the 1960s John McCabe was inspired to write an orchestral work about them.

It's tempting on first acquaintance with Cooke's allegros to wonder if there isn't an element of note-spinning as there can be with Hindemith. To a certain extent it's the 'fear', if I can put it that way, of 'gebrauchsmusik'- the translation of which is 'needed music'. Developing that further, John Talbot in his notes explains that this manifests itself in music which is "capable of performance by both a talented amateur as well as a professional". Whilst that may be true, the amateurs who might tackle these sonatas will have to be especially talented. Cooke's allegros can be technically demanding but have, I feel, more direction than those by Hindemith and a clearer sense of form. You can hear this in the opening movement of the Violin Sonata as well as that stronger melodic sense.

The sonata was commissioned and first played by Rosemary Rapaport, a life-long friend of the composer, who writes a touching 'Personal Reminiscence' in the CD booklet.

The Viola Sonata, which is from the period when Cooke was working in Manchester, may well date from fifteen years earlier but the style and language is consistent. The plan of the work is very similar with a much longer slow, middle movement. The sinewy, wiry melodic lines are just as in the later works. There is no doubt that the music has energy and at times passion, especially in the central moments of the second movement but it is difficult to find anything which is really memorable about this work even after hearing it a few times. It's interesting nevertheless to note that in the 1930s the viola was emerging from its 'Cinderella' phase and that in no small part was due Hindemith's playing of the instrument and the commissioning of many new works.

The last work here is the Second Cello Sonata. This has all the fingerprints of Cooke's later style as heard in the Third Symphony. First it has abundant energy, amazing for a composer then in this mid-seventies. This is manifest not only in its outer Allegro movements but also in a bounding Scherzo in compound time now added as a third movement. Secondly, we have, right from the start, the upwardly-striving dotted rhythms so typical of him and of Hindemith here followed by a string of semiquavers. The second movement is a Lento but it never settles and is always moving forward. The finale is determinedly contrapuntal. Of the three works this is one that most hits the spot for me. Raphael Wallfisch gave it its first public performance in the composer's memorial concert in 2006. Clearly he knows his way around its awkward corners. As does, in all of these sonatas, the much missed Raphael Terroni who was such a supporter of British Music. He always made sure that he was the servant of the notes. He is complemented by the two younger musicians Susanne Stanzeleit and Morgan Goff, who, one assumes, were coming upon this music for the first time and who tackle it so convincingly.

This CD was originally issued by the British Music Society and it's good to see an increasing number of their many discs of rare British works now being made available through Naxos. The excellent notes are by John Talbot as well as Rosemary Rapaport and they throw much insight on the composer with their fascinating biographical information. Little however is said about the music of the three sonatas themselves. Perhaps that's for the best as without undue analysis the music is allowed to speak for itself.

Gary Higginson