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Roger Sacheverell COKE (1912-1972)
Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor, Op.24 (1936) [20:34]
Cello Sonata no.2 in C major, Op.29 (1938) [25:29]
Cello Sonata no.3 in A minor, Op.44 (1941) [26:09]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. 2019, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
LYRITA SRCD384 [72:14]

Simon Callaghan has made sterling efforts over the past few years to champion the music of Derbyshire-born composer Roger Sacheverell Coke. This is the third release of Coke's music I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing (review ~ review). Thanks to Simon, this almost forgotten composer's star is now beginning to shine. He was born in Alfreton, Derbyshire in 1912, into an upper middle-class family. He lost his father, a military man, in the early days of World War 1. He was sent to Eton, where the first signs of artistic leanings began to manifest themselves. The family’s wealth was a positive asset. His mother converted a stable building in Brookhill Hall near Pinxton, the family home, into a music studio and furnished it with a Steinway. He studied music, not in one of the conservatoires, but privately with John Frederick Staton and Alan Bush. Bruckner, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Bax were enduring influences. The three Cello Sonatas were penned between 1936 and 1941. It was a productive period for Coke. It saw the composition of the second symphony (dedicated to Rachmaninoff), the third and fourth piano concertos, the opera The Cenci, 24 preludes for piano and the first violin sonata, in addition to some smaller works. All three of the sonatas on this disc are recording debuts.

Coke was only in his twenties when he composed his Cello Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 24, and it bears a dedication to his mother, Dorothy. The ancestral home provided a venue for its first outing on 27 June 1936, with Coke securing the services of Sheffield-based cellist Alan Morton. The London premiere followed in December at the Aeolian Hall. It's the only one of the three sonatas structured in four movements. The work is a partnership of equals. Carefully wrought, there's a blend of lush lyricism and chromaticism in the opening movement. I also found it heavily rhapsodic. Coke exploits the wide ranges of both instruments and calls for extreme dynamics from the cellist in the upper reaches. Apparently some 'judicious alterations' had to be made to accommodate the recording. In the slow movement, the piano takes the initial lead. As the music progresses, it becomes rapturous, before returning to its opening material. Whimsical and waggish would be how I'd describe the Scherzo. The finale is a wistful glance back in time. The cello ruminates over a tentative piano accompaniment. Towards the end, the composer ups the rhetoric, calling time with a final flourish.

Two years later, he embarked on his Second Cello Sonata. Once again, Brookhill Hall offered the backdrop for the first performance in January 1939, with Morton, the dedicatee, taking the cello role. London audiences had to wait until October 1950, this time with Sela Trau on cello. The critics found the melancholic character of the work not much to their liking. Having said that, the work is cast on a larger scale than its predecessor, with Coke exploring greater emotional range. His compositional skill reveals onward development. In three movements, the listener’s attention is grabbed from the outset by the declamatory style of the writing. The second subject is quite passionate and later, static elements creep in. The slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, elegiac in mood and veiled in contemplation. It's only in the finale that the mood lightens somewhat with a rustic theme. There's a quote from Rachmaninoff's Fourth Piano Concerto, an acknowledgement to the high regard Coke held for the Russian.

The Third Sonata dates from 1941. Coke had been exempted from military service, no doubt due to growing mental health issues. He'd received treatment for depression and schizophrenia. This Third Sonata was premiered at Brookhill Hall a year later with Alan Morton and the composer. The substantial opening movement is complex in its thematic material, with bold piano writing and impassioned cello lines. The middle movement is marked Largo assai and begins with a lengthy piano solo. When the cello enters, the melody has a yearning intensity. Gradually its chromatic whisperings are underlined by delicate brush strokes from the piano's upper spheres. Callaghan coaxes some radiant luminous sonorities in this section. The third movement is a quirky, mercurial theme followed by a set of variations, each exploring different moods. 

With hand in glove ensemble, Wallfisch and Callaghan deliver imaginative and resourceful performances of music, crying out for greater currency. I'm certain that this well-recorded release will add considerably to the growing interest in this composer. The excellent, erudite annotations come courtesy of Dr. Rupert Ridgewell.

This is an extremely fine recording, worthy to grace the shelves of any chamber music collection.

Stephen Greenbank 
Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf ~ Richard Masters

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