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Roger Sacheverell COKE (1912-1972)
Preludes Op.33 (1938-9) [22:46]
Preludes Op.34 (1941) [25:51]
Variations Op.37 (1939) [28:15]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec.  The Old Granary Studios, Suffolk, UK, 2014
world premiere recordings

Here we have a disc by a British twentieth century composer I have never heard of.  Yet he was befriended and encouraged by the likes of Rachmaninoff, Moiseiwitsch and Eugene Goossens and his music was broadcast by the BBC.  Neither was he a shrinking miniaturist; his catalogue includes six piano concertos, two ‘vocal’ concertos for voice and orchestra, three symphonies, four symphonic poems, a substantial amount of piano music and his magnum opus — a three-act opera The Cenci.  Aside from a recording of the 1st Violin Sonata on EM records this would appear to be the only other commercial recording of Roger Sacheverell Coke’s music that has been made — and the first to devote an entire disc to his work.

That being the case perhaps a short biography is in order — all of which I pass on courtesy of Robert Matthew-Walker’s excellent liner note accompanying this disc.  Coke was born into a comfortably affluent middle class family in 1912.  His father died at the first battle of Ypres in 1914 leaving Coke to grow up in the indulgent care of his mother and French governess.  So indulged that for his twenty-first birthday his mother had a coach house and stable block at the family home converted into a music studio with gallery capable of holding an audience of several hundred and furnished with a fine Steinway concert grand piano.  Coke would not be the first composer able to indulge his passion for music free of financial cares but the degree of the cocooning seems unusual.  This dissociation from the wider world was exacerbated by his suffering from a number mental health disorders as well as being a homosexual in an age when this was still a criminal offence.  His works that were published or performed seem to have been done so at his own expense.  The only performance of The Cenci  - wholly funded by Coke — was given by Goossens conducting the LSO in 1959 and was uniformly dismissed by the critics.  The picture of Coke that is the centre-fold of the liner is dated “c. 1960s” and shows a man prematurely aged — in part due to his 100 cigarettes-a-day habit. Listening to the music it is easy to hear a man out of step with the time in which he lived.

All of which makes for something of a personal tragedy but from the standpoint of some forty years after his death the important thing is that the music — here at least — lives on.  The passage of years is important too because the essential Romanticism of this music seems far less of a hindrance — if hindrance at all — than one imagines was the case when it first appeared.  The problem any reviewer has within the limited time-frame that can be afforded any disc — especially of music hitherto unknown — is how to reference it. This is particularly true of Coke’s music — the ‘debt’ to Romanticism generally and composers such as Rachmaninov, Scriabin and even Debussy is undoubted and indeed undigested but it is a homage paid with distinctly more contemporary harmony.  So there is this curious juxtaposition of big Romantic pianistic gestures; thickly chorded heroic melodies replete with virtuosic figurations and flamboyant display yet using densely dissonant harmonies of a later age.  Also, Coke can change musical affiliation in mid sentence — so a piece may start with boldly Rachmaninovian sweeping music and end with a few bars of Debussian minimalism.  All of which has left me rather confused — but more importantly impressed.

Much of the reason for the positive impression this music makes has to be down to the passionate and highly skilled advocacy of pianist Simon Callaghan.  I have previously enjoyed his contribution as part of a piano duet with Hiroaki Takenouchi exploring Delius’s orchestral works in their 2 piano/piano 4 hands transcriptions.  This is possibly even more impressive.  Coke makes great demands upon his player and Callaghan — and the Somm engineers — rise to the challenge magnificently.  In reality we are unlikely to get many other versions of this repertoire any time soon so the good news is just how fine the playing is here.  To learn wholly unfamiliar music such as this takes many hours — especially when Coke side-steps one’s expectations with such regularity — so the player has to be very careful to play what Coke wrote and not what he thinks he wrote.

This generously filled disc presents all twenty-four of Coke’s Piano Preludes and the very fine Variations Op.37.  In a very traditional way Coke presents his Preludes starting in C major, then the relative minor (A minor comes first), and proceeds in rising 5ths (G major/E minor next) until all 24 keys have been completed.  These are split between two opus numbers; 33 and 34 — unusually split 11 and 13 Preludes.  I’m guessing that this is because the 11th Prelude completes the ‘sharp’ keys of B major before flipping over into flat keys with an enharmonic A flat minor?  Coke sets out his stall from the very opening of the stormy first C major prelude [track 1].  What is consistently impressive in the Preludes is the concision of Coke’s invention; aside from Nos. 11, 17 and 20 none break the three minute barrier and fifteen run to less than two minutes.  Likewise, within each miniature the mood is clearly defined and expertly achieved.  Certainly I can imagine groups of these Preludes appearing in recital programmes very effectively indeed.  Crudely speaking the minor keys seem to bring out the dramatist in Coke with great effect.  I like the brooding landscape of No.4 and the turbulent No.6 especially.  It is interesting to make a direct comparison with another ‘forgotten’ set of 24 Preludes by York Bowen as recorded by Joop Celis on Chandos.  I have enjoyed Bowen’s solo piano music more than any of his other work and his Preludes come across as less directly influenced than Coke’s by other composers.  There is though, a teasing fascination about this current disc — a musical itch I cannot quite scratch — that refuses to be dismissed.  By rights it should be too derivative, too generic but time and again the harmony side-slips and the melody jars where the Bowen feels a fraction too easily fluent and comfortably achieved — just a tad too close to the salon to be wholly serious.

If this is true of the Preludes I think it even more so of the big set of Op.37 Variations.  Many of the same values apply — concision, clearly defined character between variations/sections but binding it all together is an original theme.  Running to nearly thirty minutes this is a substantial work but one that in no way outstays its welcome.  Again, all praise to Callaghan for not just playing the notes but really performing the music with passion and conviction.  Ultimately, the Preludes function as a group of miniatures collected together — by definition the Variations have to flow together and here Coke shows real skill and fluency.  Again there is a sensibility that looks back to an earlier age and certainly the music is blithely unaware of the global turbulence that was all apparent in 1939.   In trawling the internet for more information I read Bax was an admired composer of Coke’s.  Suddenly, with the Intermezzo — Variation 11 [track 36] this admiration is expressed in almost pastiche form — but somehow Coke pulls this off in a most affecting manner.  Bax’s benevolent influence returns in the closing Finale — tempo di Tema which builds to a climax of orchestral splendour before dying back into a twilight musing.  The closing bars with harmonies juxtaposed quite unexpectedly could be a sampler of Coke’s harmonic style is very beautiful and impressive.  Given the scale of the work it seems unlikely that it will feature often in other programmes either on disc or in the concert hall but I did enjoy it a lot.

Again, more trawling reveals that many of Coke’s manuscripts are held in public libraries in Chesterfield.  Sadly, the piano concertos appear to be lost except for No.4 but there is a score and parts for his Symphony No.2.  Likewise the vocal concertos and the Cenci are 'safe'.  I would not want to pretend that this music is the work of a lost genius — indeed, my level of familiarity only allows an incomplete assessment — without more works to measure his music by and a wider range of performances we can only gain a partial and limited view of his art.  My sense — based more on instinct and my own personal taste than anything else — is that Coke deserves wider performance and appreciation.  Somm are another small independent company dedicated to the production of high quality recordings of unusual repertoire — this disc achieves those goals in spades.  Excellent production and engineering from Siva Oke and Ben Connellan ensure that the commanding and virtuosic musicianship of Simon Callaghan allows this quirkily individual music to register with maximum effect — a fascinating and compelling disc.

Nick Barnard

and another review ...

Coke has been on my radar as a fascinating reputation alongside those of Gaze Cooper and Stanley Wilson since the 1990s. Would the experience of the music match the fascination of the unknown or unheard?

All those years ago I read through the files of Coke, Cooper and Wilson at the same time as trudging my way through the fury-charred Holbrooke folders at the BBC Data Centre at Caversham Park. The correspondence for all three was laced with disappointment and flecked with resentment only occasionally bridled by diplomacy; there's very little diplomacy from the composer in the Holbrooke files. All the files were invaluable as they yielded information beyond the machetéed summaries appearing for some of these composers in the 1950s Grove and later. The non-existence or brevity of the Grove entries served as an eloquent statement of the musical establishment's judgement on the music of these composers.

More references to Coke cropped up in passing, and not at all in profusion, while working my way through bound 1930s and 1940s volumes of the Radio Times. A further source was the ever-enlightened Musical Opinion — a journal sympathetic to the seemingly peripheral and marginalised. Musical Times had few if any references to Coke. His Second and Third piano concertos were performed in Bournemouth and Torquay and presumably in Coke's own concert hall at Pinxton as well as figuring in a handful of 1930s broadcasts. There is even, I seem to recall, a note of a self-funded performance of Coke's Third Symphony. That pre-WWII decade appears to have been Coke's high water mark. Even then the attention was fairly modest and fed by his own bank account. One wonders how he might have done in these days of crowd-funded projects.

What matters now, beyond these extraneous biographical references, is the music. The 24 Preludes and the Variations are succinct and soused in romantic-impressionist atmosphere. Coke's hero was Rachmaninov and that composer's ambience pervades the music. Where I expected Coke to run to indulgent length the individual Preludes are the soul of brevity. This composer, in a short compass of time, rapidly establishes a gripping, understated and often subtle-shadowy world. The music should appeal to those who love the piano output of Medtner and Rachmaninov not to mention two British masters: William Baines and Greville Cooke. There's even a shade of Sorabji (look out for the Naxos 3CD box 8.571363-65 which reissues an earlier BMS collection) although Coke does not go in for the thickets of convolution one finds there. The music at times sounds rather expressionistic in the manner of Zemlinsky. It's not at all indebted to Schoenberg — at least not the fully mature Schoenberg.

The Preludes cast a vibrant spell. They are varied in mood: imperious (1, 12, 24), dreamlike (3, 7, 11, 20), galloping (6, 18), rippling (10, 14, 19), meditative (13, 16, 17), elegiac (15) and lulling (23). There is no reason why these works should not figure in general mixed recitals. They would make a superb and wonderfully stimulating contrast alongside more familiar fare. The Variations Op.37 have much in common with Preludes. They breathe the same air as you would expect from  a work coeval with the two sets. We can be forgiven for thinking of Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations when listening to the Coke work; try tracks 28, 31 and 40 — the latter with the shadow of the Dies Irae haunting the shadows. Callaghan already has concert experience of the Rachmaninov work. The dreamy ballroom Medtnerisms of some of the Variations are handled with poetic subtlety as are the stately delights (tr. 37) and innocent candour of the final variation.

I hope that there will be more Coke from Callaghan — he plays as if he has received the manner from on high. This is remarkable given that the music was otherwise completely unknown as a performing entity.

You can see a sample of this pianist's way with Coke on YouTube.

The notes, in English only, are by Robert Matthew-Walker, so we know that we are in safe hands.

There is, as Nick Barnard says, one other Coke work on disc: the Violin Sonata No. 1. This arrives courtesy of Em Marshall-Luck's EM Records label (review with biographical outline and list of works). That project followed a morning concert in Dorchester-on-Thames back in 2012 (review). Beyond that I have a somewhat grey-sounding tape of a long-gone Radio 3 broadcast Coke's Cello Sonata No. 2 played by Alexander Baillie and Piers Lane. That's it.

By the way Simon Callaghan is no stranger to unusual repertoire. Delius benefits from his unstinting dediication and fine performing qualities in two volumes of Delius transcriptions (review review) and a mixed recital of rare English piano music (review) of an earlier vintage than Coke.

It only remains to add that the Somm recording by Siva Oke and Ben Connellan packs a punch yet catches the suggestions of mist and cloud just as well as the stormy grandeur of this music.

As to the orchestral scores that are known to have survived I am assured that in addition to Piano Concerto No. 4, No 3 is extant, as well as a movement from no. 5. We can hope that the partiturs and performing materials for the other orchestral pieces will also turn up and that the next Coke Somm CD will introduce us to the piano concertos. On this showing we are in for something of a revelation and one that will reward the listener already partial to Rachmaninov, Medtner, Bowen or Dobrowen.

Rob Barnett


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