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 SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD0147 [77:12]
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 Cokes 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-Walkers 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 Cokes 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 Deliuss 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 ones 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 Cokes
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. Im 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 Cokes
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
Bowens solo piano music more than any of his other work and his
Preludes come across as less directly influenced than Cokes 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 Cokes.
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. Baxs 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 Cokes 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 Cokes 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.
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
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 (reviewreview)
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
We are currently
offering in excess of 51,000 reviews
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Senior Editor
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
Vacant MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger