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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Complete Music for Oboe and Piano and Sonata for Two Pianos
Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1957) [19:32]
Sonata for Oboe and Cembalo (or Piano) (1962) [17:38]
Intermezzo (1987) [3:38]
Quartet for Oboe and String Trio (1948) [16:37]
Sonata for Two Pianos (1937) [17:59]
The Pleyel Ensemble
rec. 2017, The Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK
MPR 108 [75:48]

Here is a welcome addition to the Arnold Cooke discography. Cooke’s music has never really achieved the recognition it deserves, despite fine recordings on Lyrita and a fabulous Dutton disc of chamber music (which includes the two piano sonatas), plus various Naxos releases. Note that Musicweb International hosts the Arnold Cooke website here.

The present disc hails from Mike Purton Recordings, and a previous Cooke release on this label has been reviewed on MusicWeb: chamber music for piano and strings here. Purton in his time has been a fine Principal Horn with the Hallé Orchestra (and was such in my formative years in Manchester, for what it’s worth) and recording producer, training as a Tonmeister at the University of Surrey.

The Oboe Sonata, composed in 1957 for Eugene Goossens, begins with mysterious Andante that creates a decidedly unsettled plateau – hints, perhaps, of Hindemith, with whom Cooke studied in Berlin, climaxing in a brief oboe cadenza. The Allegro vivace that follows is full of energy (gesturally the movement as a whole struck me as having parallels with Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano). The introduction makes a brief reappearance at the end. The slow movement is songful and pastorally English, the concluding Rondo, an allegro giocoso, attractively angular in its melodic profile. The well-loved oboist Melinda Maxwell is the ideal interpreter, lyrical when required, agile at other times; her pianist Harvey Davies is impeccable in his role. As befits a work that holds lyricism at its heart, the close is thoughtful, lingering magically in the air.

The Sonata for Oboe and Cembalo (or Piano) was composed for Evelyn Rothwell and the Australian harpsichordist Valda Aveling. We hear it performed by oboe and piano on the grounds that the dynamic indications for the keyboard add an extra dimension (both scorings were essayed). Certainly the significant dynamic swells in the first movement have power here, Maxwell and Harvey Davies once more in full accord. The modal central Adagio is a magnificent piece of writing (I for one would love to hear the harpsichord equivalent, which might well further underline the atmospheric ambiguity of the harmonies). The oboe line can be markedly, and highly effectively, disjunct.

There are alternative readings of the two oboe sonatas on Willowhayne Records by Catherine Tanner-Williams and Christopher Williams, another recent release. Both use piano for the Oboe and Cembalo Sonata and both offer fine, musical readings of both pieces. Perhaps Turner-Williams and Williams just find that touch more atmosphere at the outset of the 1957 Sonata for oboe and piano, but Maxwell and Harvey Davies are fresher in the faster sections. To an extent we’re splitting hairs as all the musicians are top-notch, and it really should be stated that neither will disappoint.

It is fabulous to have the brief Intermezzo for oboe and piano of 1987 although here a presentation point crops up. While printing yellow onto off white is not the best of combinations (track listing, inner front cover), yellow on yellow renders the duration of this work all but unreadable on the back over. Never mind: the piece is fabulous (at times it sounds like music for a a snake charmer, but with an English accent). Written for a concert at the Wigmore Hall for the 90th birthday of Leon Goosens, it was first performed by its dedicatee, Nicholas Daniel along with pianist Julius Drake. To my knowledge this present recording by Maxwell and Harvey Davies is the only one available.

Premičred by Leon Goossens and the Carter String Trio, the Oboe Quartet is a strong work, the first movement exuding a predominant muscularity. This impression is perhaps emphasised by the decidedly close recording here (perhaps one might kindly label it “involving”?). Modality casts a shadow over the G minor tonality, so that even when the oboe pipes (superbly agile here from Maxwell), it comes with a touch of melancholy. The writing for the central Adagio offers some of the most profound music on the disc, elusive and fascinating. It is also worth pointing out that the tempo indication for this central movement of the Oboe Quartet is certainly not the Allegro ma non troppo the back cover and inside front cover claim; it is, instead, a songful and beautifully tender Adagio in which Maxwell’s oboe cantabile is to die for (the recording captures the cello a touch airlessly though). The tempo printed for the second movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is that for the first; to make matters worse, that first movement is described as “Allegro non troppo” (without the “ma”). The open-air breeziness of the finale, an Allegro moderato, is glorious, and when the oboe and first violin go into jaunty accompaniment mode the effect is truly delightful; later, the oboe cadenza has a real soulfulness about it. More depth and a little less abrasiveness to the recording would have sealed the deal.

The performance of the Oboe Quartet on Meridian by Roger Lord with Andrew McGee, Roger Garland and Roger Smith (three out of four Rogers, a recipe for confusion in rehearsal if ever there was one) is again affectionate and finely sculpted. The recording there is preferable, with the instruments believably placed in the sound image, if there ironically with just a touch too much reverberation: but it is just a touch. Roger Lord is, like Maxwell, splendidly expressive in the central Adagio (the oboe/cello exchange comes off better here primarily because of the recording). The Meridian performance highlights the “moderato” qualifier of the finale’s indication more, allowing shadows to scud more easily over the music’s surface. Both approaches are valid; both performances, musically, are excellent.

Finally, the Sonata for Two Pianos. This is a first recording and that in itself makes the disc invaluable. It is no surprise this closes the disc: it is full of fun, replete with wit. There is something of a toned-down Milhaud about the first movement (especially keenly felt when the harmonies seem to slip in one piano while remaining constant in the other, before re-aligning themselves). That Milhaud reference is odd. The first movement kept on invoking Scaramouche; which, it turns out, was written in the same year. Unlikely that Cooke knew it, then (I'd stand to be corrected) but an interesting parallel nonetheless. The central Larghetto is a gentle, lilting movement that at times seems to be thinking aloud to itself, taking Cooke into the most experimental textures on the disc. The helter-skelter finale is brilliantly busy and slightly, but wonderfully, bonkers, as if Cooke lets go of any inhibitions. The pianists here are Harvey Davies and Helen Davies (Harvey studied at one point with Helen, his mother), and they are unsurprisingly supremely attuned to one another. They are also capable of creating the most unbuttoned fizz, and in a recording environment, to boot. The recording here is excellent.

A fabulous disc, one of a very important series. Recommended.

Colin Clarke

Previous review: John France

Melinda Maxwell, oboe; Harvey Davies, Helen Davies, pianos; Sarah Ewing, violin; Susie Mészáros, viola; Heather Bills, cello

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