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Roger Sacheverell COKE (1912-1972)
First Cello Sonata in D Minor, op. 24 (1936) [20:34]
Second Cello Sonata in C, op. 29 (1938) [25:29]
Third Cello Sonata in A Minor, op. 44 (1941) [26:09]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. 2019, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
LYRITA SRCD384 [72:14]

In the world of classical music, there are winners and losers. A “winning” composer finds acclaim in his lifetime, and continues to be performed long after his demise. A different sort of “winner” might be denied plaudits during his lifetime, but is unearthed and celebrated after his death. This is a trickier proposition; when a composer dies before finding a contemporary generation of interpreters eager to champion him, the chances of his music disappearing into the mists of time are great. Luckily, there exist some intrepid musicians eager to discover forgotten composers of the distant past, performers who are willing to dust-off unknown works with great gusto. This takes no small amount of bravery on the part of those musicians, who are often asked by agents and orchestras to perform the expected canon with no deviations. In the pianist Simon Callaghan, the Derbyshire-born Roger Sacheverell Coke finds a talented and sympathetic interpreter. On this new disc, Callaghan and cellist Raphael Wallfisch perform Coke’s cello sonatas with great skill, playing with much color and dramatic flair.

I wish I could report that Callaghan’s musical archaeology has paid substantial dividends in these sonatas, but I must confess that I cannot hear the value that drives him. A member of the landed gentry, Coke studied composition privately with Alan Bush, and then pursued a lifetime of performances with friends in mostly provincial venues, appearing infrequently on the regional BBC. According to the thorough booklet notes by Dr. Rupert Ridgewell, the composer suffered from bouts of mental illness, and he completed no substantial works after 1950.

Coke felt a close affinity with the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, corresponding with the Russian and even visiting him in Switzerland in the 1930s to share his scores for evaluation. We don’t know Rachmaninoff’s verdict, but we can hear echoes of the older composer’s music in these sonatas. Unfortunately, we can also hear snippets of John Ireland in the melodies, Arnold Bax in the harmonies, and bits of Frank Bridge’s sparse dissonance. I can even hear some Delius in the use of constant punctuating chords in the accompaniment, a favorite device of the older composer in his violin sonatas. The overall effect of these cello sonatas is that of reminiscence; every phrase brings to mind the work of some other composer.

Listening to the sonatas without a score, one is struck by the meandering nature of the music. This is not to say that there is no form, but rather that the development of musical ideas is not arresting, and that the melodies themselves are agreeable without being distinctive in any way. Motives sequence up and down without much purpose, and folk-like episodes come and go without adding to the overall fabric of the pieces. I often found my mind wandering, not in any sort of emotionally-directed way a la Schubert in his long sonata movements, but in a more woolgathering manner. As mentioned, the approach to harmony is Baxian, but Coke does not command the keyboard virtuosity of the older Englishman, nor can he conjure up the impressionistic sound found in the piano or violin sonatas (not to mention the tone poems and symphonies). Moments that are clearly meant to function as passionate climaxes in the manner of Rachmaninoff fall flat to my ears, the lack of true development making the musical peaks ring false. Each sonata runs into the next, the characters of the three works being very similar. Worst of all, there is no clear evidence of compositional growth from the 1936 sonata to the 1941 sonata. If this seems like a short time period in which to expect improved compositional abilities, compare John Ireland’s two violin sonatas (1909 v. 1917) to one another. The first sonata is the work of a young composer who has carefully studied his Brahms, a sturdy piece of craftsmanship with small flashes of inspiration; the second sonata is a masterwork that does not stand on the shoulders of any other composer.

I would like to emphasize that my negative reaction to the music is not the fault of Wallfisch and Callaghan, who play beautifully. The music is pleasant, but it is simply not interesting. It lacks the brilliant melodic profile and structural cohesion of a composer like John Ireland, and cannot achieve the rugged strength and vivid color of Arnold Bax. The booklet notes lead the reader to believe that contemporary critics of Coke were unjust in their “lukewarm” reception of his music (that word is repeated numerous times throughout the notes in a dismayed manner, Dr. Ridgewell clearly coming down on the side of the composer), but in my view, the critics of the 1930s and 1940s were accurate in their assessment of Coke’s work.

Although my appraisal of these works is unenthusiastic, I am grateful to Wallfisch and Callaghan for their willingness to take a chance on music of this period (much of which remains unheard), and to Lyrita for issuing the recording. Musicians should be encouraged to explore unknown scores of the past; one never knows when one might stumble upon a composer who is indeed unjustly forgotten.

Richard Masters

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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