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Roger Sacheverell COKE (1912-1972)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 30 (1938) [30:13]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C sharp minor, Op. 38 (1940) [29:58]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in D minor: II. Andante piacevole, Op. 57 (1947/50) [8:56]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2016, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow
All first recordings
HYPERION CDA68173 [69:09]

When Sergei Rachmaninov grew to regard his first concerto as inadequate, he didn’t destroy its score when he issued a revised version. As a consequence, we can see how the youthful composer relied on the models of other composers’ works in the construction of his Op.1.

Unfortunately, Roger Sacheverell Coke did not follow his idol’s example, destroying the scores of his first two concertos when he felt that they did not reflect his evolved compositional facility or style, which means that this very welcome CD contains all his extant piano concertos; no’s 3,4 and the unfinished no.5.

It is easy for me to grumble, but really, I should not do so when I know of the almost herculean efforts that have gone into the preparation of this CD. Working from the autographs of the 4th and 5th concertos, the pianist Simon Callaghan has himself prepared all the parts – orchestral, soloist and conductors score. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on Coke, and it may be that the labours expended here have granted him further insights into the composer that can be used in his academic work.

I should also say that Hyperion prepared all the materials for the 3rd concerto, and this resounds to their great credit – their Romantic Piano Concerto series, now into its 73rd volume – must surely stand as one of the great achievements of classical recording. Hyperion’s usual standards of presentation and recorded excellence are all present here – the recording is exceptionally vivid and I am glad to see all the members of the orchestra named as they have important roles to play in these pieces, in which Coke shows himself to be a virtuoso orchestrator.

Coke composed all the concertos on this disc after Rachmaninov had completed his concerted works - the Paganini Rhapsody dates from 1934, four years prior to Coke’s 3rd, and since we can read that Coke was influenced by his Russian hero, it would be unfair to expect these concertos – even the earliest, to demonstrate the lush romanticism of the first three Rachmaninov concertos, and nor do they.

In fact, the main aspect of Rachmaninov’s music that is lacking in Coke’s is his melodic inspiration. Even in his 4th concerto, notable for its more acerbic style, Rachmaninov could not suppress his melodies, although they are bound in a moderately laced corset, which still allows them more room to breathe than Coke permits. So, I have to say that anyone looking to hear melodic similarities to the great Russian in these works, may well be disappointed.

The 3rd concerto opens with the piano in declamatory mood, alternating with a short-breathed orchestral subject that the piano develops and then continues to do so throughout the movement. There are brief moments when I suspect that a sweeping Warsaw Concerto type of passage is going to develop, but it never quite gets there. The movement ends quietly and abruptly – rather disconcertingly so, to my ears. The second movement is a set of variations where the theme is sung at the outset by the solo piano. This sounds vaguely French to me, and Coke uses it to present the listener with passages of considerable fire alternating with beautifully lyrical rhapsodising. In the last movement, an initial quite exuberant passage with the piano and orchestra in dialogue gives way to a highly romantic second subject on the strings. This is the melodic highlight of the concerto, Coke himself describing it as “an almost Russian melody”, and after the piano plays with it to memorable effect, he gives us a virtuosic cadenza, occasionally interrupted by brass fanfares. The movement ends in full romantic throttle with a return of the opening material and I enjoyed it very much.

The 4th concerto was composed in 1940, two years after the 3rd, and in the composer’s own words “is far more complex and difficult, but at the same time, more personal and perhaps less genial, in its expression”. The first movement seems to occupy a constantly shifting landscape in which I find it difficult to pin down a primary or secondary theme. The music alternates the piano and orchestra, with extended solo passages interrupted by brass interjections. The second movement, marked ‘Intermezzo: Andante’, opens on the strings with a rather angular theme, repeated and varied by the piano. The piano and orchestra bring things to a central climax, and then the tension evaporates as the solo piano muses on the theme. The composer regarded the movement as consisting of music “so easy to grasp that it needed no detailed analysis” and whilst this may be the case, I find it rather fragmented, an impression that may be influenced by the composer’s virtuosic orchestration and his habit of alternating the piano with the orchestra. Like its predecessors, the last movement shows us Coke’s abilities as an orchestrator – he is very fond of using the brass to dramatic, sometimes threatening, effect. Eventually, the opening theme of the work is brought back, a moment that the composer described as “the apotheosis of the whole work” and a passionate cadenza is followed by a recapitulation that erupts in full romantic style leading to a crashing finale.

The nine-minute fragment that constitutes the 5th concerto is probably the second movement of the work. Its neighbours do not survive. It is a strange, bleak affair in which the sombre mood is occasionally lifted by a tender melody on the piano. There are times when the things are reduced to a single instrumental line (not necessarily the piano) and the piece approaches stasis. At least once it reminds me of the Scriabin of the later sonatas.

This excellent CD makes the case for these concertos in as persuasive a manner as I can think of, and Simon Callaghan is a sympathetic and committed exponent. I should like to hear Roger Sacheverell Coke’s symphonies which are as unknown as these pieces, and his only opera, ‘The Cenci’, which received hostile reviews after its one performance in 1959.

Like some other British composers of his generation, Coke suffered by being a committed tonalist in a world rapidly becoming atonal. These days, thank goodness, we are more open to composers writing in forms that appeal to the ear rather than solely to the intellect, and so one can hope that research by interested individuals like Simon Callaghan will continue to allow us to hear neglected music. Necessarily, of course, we also need Hyperion and similar companies to thrive so that the music can fill our private spaces as well as concert halls.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)



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