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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Piano Trio in C (1941-44) [24:46]
Piano Quartet (1948-49) [28:50]
Piano Quintet (1969) [25:23]
Sarah Ewins, Benedict Holland (violin); Heather Bills (cello); Harvey Davies (piano); Susie Mészáros (viola)
rec. 2017/18, The Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK

Arnold Cooke has failed to make a major impact on listeners for, I feel, one good reason. There is a pernicious rumour abroad that he owes his entire style to his composition teacher Paul Hindemith. It has been suggested that Cooke ‘sold out’ his Britishness to become a clone of the German master. At the time of Cooke’s emergence onto the concert platform, many listeners felt that English music ought to sound like English music – either ‘pastoral ramblings’ or post-Elgarian bombast. Yet what Cooke did was to learn from his German teacher and absorb several musical lessons from him, but then bring his English tradition to bear on the results. This is no different from many other respected composers, the Francophile Lennox Berkeley who studied with Nadia Boulanger, the Frankfurt Group including Roger Quilter and Cyril Scott. Even Vaughan Williams had lessons from Maurice Ravel. All these composers managed to learn from their teachers, but also retain that nebulous ‘English’ quality that is so hard to define but is manifestly present. Malcolm MacDonald has written that what Cooke ‘really imbibed [from Hindemith] was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.’ He was a consummate craftsman. Furthermore, Havergal Brian wrote as long ago as 1936 that Cooke ‘appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss.’ So, Arnold Cooke’s music is a subtle fusion of German technique with a largely English sensibility. For me, it works remarkably well.

Cooke’s catalogue lists some 45 works for chamber ensemble of one kind or another. As the liner note correctly point out, a relatively small proportion has been played by ‘modern’ performers either in the recital room or the recording studio.

The present disc is the second in the Mike Purton Recordings series of chamber music CDs dedicated to Arnold Cooke. Earlier this year, MusicWeb International carried Jonathan Woolf’s excellent review of ‘The Complete Violin Sonatas’ issued on MPR103. This disc also included the Duo for violin and viola. The Sonata No.2 had been previously released on the British Music Society’s own label, BMS432CD and subsequently released on NAXOS 8.571362. This disc also included the Cello Sonata No.2 (1979-80) and the pre-war Viola Sonata (1936-37). 

The present CD, played by the Pleyel Ensemble, includes three world premiere recordings: The Piano Trio written during the Second World War between 1941-44, the Piano Quartet dating from 1948/9 and the late Piano Quintet composed in 1969.

I am beholden to the liner notes for assisting me to review these three pieces, none of which I had previously heard.

The earliest work on this remarkable CD is the Piano Trio. The first two movements are serious in tone whilst the finale is marginally less troubled. The opening ‘poco lento - allegro’ is dominated by contrapuntal textures that builds pressure up towards an ‘uneasy’ conclusion. This is exciting music, if at times troubled and nervous. It is reasonably well-known that Cooke worked on the second movement of his Trio in ‘quiet moments[!]’ while at sea with the Royal Navy. He was the liaison officer aboard the Dutch tug D.S Thames based at Tilbury. His boat was tasked with towing part of the Mulberry Harbours across the English Channel during the Normandy Landings. It is amazing that Cooke found the inner peace to compose this magical score in these circumstances.  The finale is played at a frenetic speed, with an almost toccata-like drive. It is only slightly-less disturbed in mood. Listeners who hold to the ‘Hindemith Delusion’ will find little in this work to justify their claims. If anything, Brahms is the exemplar here.

The Piano Trio was first performed as part of a BBC broadcast on 11 August 1947. Cooke’s Cello Sonata and movements from his Suite for piano were also heard during this recital.

The Piano Quartet (1948-9) is surprisingly conservative for its date. The temper of this large-scale work is fundamentally Brahmsian, especially the first and third movements. The liner notes explain the ambiguous tonality of the work: it is never clear whether it is in a major or minor key. Much of the opening ‘allegro ma non troppo’ is concertante music. In other words, it is a wee bit like a piano concerto with the three string players acting as the orchestra and the piano as soloist!  The ‘scherzo’ is almost ‘light music’ in sound. Nothing too serious here, but contrapuntally exciting, often having a ‘swing’ and with some enjoyable harmonic twists and turns. Cooke’s English lyricism is obvious in the gorgeous ‘Lento’ movement. This is heartfelt music of the highest order. Largely polyphonic in its working out, the four players have equal billing. It is hard to imagine that this deeply autumnal music, harking back to the nineteenth century was composed in the same year that Olivier Messiaen’s great Turangalîla-Symphonie was premiered. But that’s musical history and aesthetics for you!  The finale is a neo-classical rondo that fairly bounces along, compete with quixotic episodes and a fugato conclusion. The echo of Franz Schubert can be heard in these pages.

The work was commissioned by composer and academic Patrick Hadley. It was premiered on a BBC broadcast on 11 August 1949. during a BBC Broadcast from St John’s College, Cambridge during that year’s Summer Festival of Music and Drama.

Due to lack of historical and analytical information about Arnold Cooke it is difficult for the listener to pin down stylistic changes, if any, in the chronology of his oeuvre. The same applies to the general paucity of recordings currently available. I feel that there is comparatively little ‘development’ in style between earliest and latest works on this CD despite being separated in time by quarter of a century. Certainly, Cooke has gone nowhere near avant-garde techniques developed by many composers in this period.

One important influence on Arnold Cooke was his ‘business’ connection and personal friendship with the Welsh composer, Alun Hoddinott. This was particularly important in several works commissioned by Hoddinott for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music, which included the Sonata No.1 for organ and the Sonata for solo violin. Independently of the Festival, Hoddinott commissioned the present Piano Quintet for the Cardiff University Music Department. It was premiered there on 13 October 1970.

Harvey Davies notes the ongoing influence of Paul Hindemith, but also Dimitri Shostakovich. Perhaps it is not surprising that Alun Hoddinott is also a source of musical style. This is probably at a constructive level of composition. Both men were ‘magpies’ who made use of ‘powerful influences’ around them. In Hoddinott’s case it is Bartok, the Polish School (Henryk Górecki, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki et al) and native Celtic music.  An important shared compositional practice was their idiomatic use of ‘tone rows’ coupled with definite centres of tonality. Neither were bound by a strict application of the serial technique. Both included passages of great lyrical beauty in their music.

The Piano Quintet (1969) balances considerable energy and vibrant motion. Listeners will notice that Cooke’s musical language is a little more ‘austere’ than in the earlier chamber works on this CD.  It is music that is immediately approachable but does benefit from repeated hearings. (I listened twice within a day or so). The slow movement which is placed after the ‘scherzo’ is the emotional heart of the work. The finale is a subtle balance of seriousness and ‘frivolity’ which I guess is a characteristic of the entire Piano Quintet.

The playing on this disc by the Pleyel Ensemble is excellent. The performances are vibrant and full of life. They are ideal advocates for Cooke’s music. The recording quality is excellent.

The liner notes are outstanding. They give a lengthy introduction to Arnold Cooke’s life and achievement as well as detailed programme note for all three works. They are written by the Pleyel Ensemble’s pianist Harvey Davies. Davies is currently studying Cooke’s music for his Ph.D. thesis. Hopefully, this will be published in book form as soon as possible. At present there is no major study of the composer, with the honourable exception of Eric Wetherell’s booklet-length study issued in 1996 and published by the British Music Society. The CD insert includes brief notes on the performers, their photos and a list of subscribers who made this CD a reality. I appreciated the haunting booklet cover, eloquently reflecting interwar skies over Berlin, complete with the Brandenburg Gate and a civilian Zeppelin. 

I hope that this is genuinely part of a long-running series of CDs planned by Mike Purton. So far, he has ‘laid down’ seven chamber works on CD. There is only about another 38 to go! Based on the performance of these three world premiere recordings, the ongoing project promises to be both exciting and revelatory.
John France

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