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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Complete Music for Oboe and Sonata for Two Pianos
Sonata for oboe and piano (1957) [19:32]
Sonata for oboe and cembalo (or piano) (1962) [17:38]
Intermezzo for oboe and piano (1987) [3:38]
Quartet for oboe and string trio (1948) [16:37]
Sonata for two pianos (1937) [17:59]
Melinda Maxwell (oboe)
The Pleyel Ensemble
Harvey Davies, Helen Davies (pianos)
rec. 2017/18, The Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
MPR 108 [75:48]

I recently reviewed the second volume of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music in this ‘edition’ (MPR105) for MusicWeb International. I discussed the stylistic parameters of the composer’s music there. Biographical details can be found in the introductory remarks to my review of Cooke’s Symphonies No.4 and No.5 on Lyrita REAM1123. I will limit myself to a single comment here. Arnold Cooke typically eschewed various modernist techniques such as serialism and was never attracted to the avant-garde. He once wrote that his music is ‘mainly based on traditional procedures and principles…I do not have any particular theories of composition, just a natural inclination for it.’ Cooke’s music is eclectic, approachable, and firmly rooted in traditional tonality spiced with dissonance and a modicum of ‘Bartókian ruggedness’. Although there is little in the way of British nationalism in his style, there is much ‘English lyricism’ that adds warmth to his music.

I am beholden to Harvey Davies’s excellent liner notes for details of all these pieces. Despite the majority of works on this CD being for oboe and piano, I chose to listen to the Sonata for two pianos first. It is the earliest piece in this disc. Arnold Cooke wrote this Sonata between 1936 and 1937. It clearly predates similar examples by Paul Hindemith (1942), Igor Stravinsky (1944) and Francis Poulenc (1953). It is unlikely (but possible) that Cooke would have been inspired by Arnold Bax’s Sonata for two pianos written in 1929 for Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. Bax’s work is predicated on pastoralism, sea music and Hebridean dance rhythms. The liner notes explain that Cooke admitted that Stravinsky’s Concerto (not Sonata as stated in these notes) for Two Pianos, ‘which had appeared in 1935, had made a considerable impression on him and that he had probably been influenced by it to some extent…’

Cooke’s Sonata opens with a slow introduction, which seems to be a characteristic of his music – at least in the works included on this disc. Then the movement ‘gets going’ with an ‘allegro’ in sonata form. Much of this music is bitter-sweet, with touches of the baroque thrown in. Counterpoint between the two pianos is the modus operandi. It is often exiting and builds to an enthusiastic and exhilarating coda. The slow movement is written in Cooke’s English-Hindemithian style. This is elegant music that balances repose with relatively relaxed effort. The middle section is typically wistful and dreamy in its gentle exploration of piquant harmonies. Cooke concluded his Sonata with a rapid ‘tarantella’ that provides a happy conclusion to this sometimes austere and lyrical sonata. The entire work maintains the listener’s interest from the first note to the last. Arnold Cooke’s Sonata for two pianos was written at the behest of the pianists Adolph Hallis and Franz Reizenstein, who duly gave the premiere at the Aeolian Hall on 17 March 1937.

I was impressed by the Quartet for oboe and string trio written in 1948. This work was a commission from Mrs. Lys Hackforth. Her husband, the classics don Richard, ran the Thursday Concert Series at Cambridge University. Léon Goossens gave the premiere performance on 1 December 1949 at this venue accompanied by the Carter String Trio. The work is in three balanced movements which all reflect Cooke’s post-war musical ethos of economy, ‘imaginative counterpoint’ and sheer craftsmanship applied to structure and means. The opening movement explores a limited amount of melodic material with considerable ingenuity. Imitative counterpoint leads to memorable phrases and musical interest. The liner notes suggest that the modality of the themes provides ‘a gentle English melancholy’ to what is largely a ‘cheerful’ movement. This is followed by a haunting ‘Aria’. The track listing shows that this should be performed ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ (not too fast). In fact, it is played slower than that, but with no detriment. It is an idyllic movement that seems to display a gentle pastoral mood, without making use of any rustic clichés. The finale is a sheer delight. Dance-like music, bounce, a long slow central cadenza, and a closing jig make this an exuberant varied and enjoyable conclusion.

Arnold Cooke’s ‘first’ Sonata for oboe and piano was completed in 1957. It was written specifically for Léon Goossens. The entire work is based on a relatively simple melodic device. However, this is established with skill and craftsmanship and used to produce a work that is full of interest and lyrical adventures that never flags or descends into mere note spinning. The opening movement is written in ‘modified sonata form’. There is a brief slow introduction followed by the exposition with the first and second subjects lacking in contrast. Cooke has abandoned the development section, in favour of a rework of the introduction. I found the following ‘andante’ plaintive and reticent. The composer has presented a series of ‘long melodic lines’ and used these to create a ternary (three-part, ABA) movement. The middle section is ‘urgent’ in its effect. The despondency returns, bringing this troubled movement to an end. The finale is effectively a jig. The liner notes explain that this includes the most technically difficult music of the entire sonata. It is not difficult to see how the wide ranging and rhythmically diverse melodic lines are challenging. One of the episodes of this ‘rondo’ has been described as ‘caricaturing the oboe’s sound in a tune reminiscent of clucking and pecking hens!’ I am not sure about this imagery, but this ‘Grotesque Dance’ is certainly energetic and lively. The work ends with some thoughtful reminiscences of the Sonata’s opening bars. Interestingly, the cadenza is given to the piano, rather than the oboe. It is a creative touch.

The Sonata for oboe and cembalo (or piano) (1962) is remarkably in advance of the 1957 work. It is hard to believe that only five years separate these two works. For the curious, cembalo is simply the Italian word for harpsichord. I hesitate to say this, but I am glad that the present soloists have chosen to play this work in its alternative setting for piano (authorised by the composer). It is not that I dislike the harpsichord, I just prefer the piano. It is the same for me with Bach! Additionally, the keyboard part is better suited to the piano. Rapid left-hand octaves can be awkward on the cembalo. This Sonata is more dissonant and edgy than the earlier work and requires concentrated and sympathetic listening. The work begins with a slow introduction, followed by a powerful allegro, with much of its material derived from opening bars. The melody does not rely on a tone-row, but it has a strong chromatic feel about it. The ‘adagio’ presents music with dark hues. There is nothing straightforward here: all is enigmatic and restless. The last movement balances the dissonant and chromatic excursions of the slow movement with a certain forced ‘jollity.’ But to no avail. This is complex and involved music that cannot escape angst and sorrow. This Sonata was composed specifically for Evelyn Rothwell, wife of the well-known conductor Sir John Barbirolli. The dedication is shared with Valda Aveling, who at that time was Rothwell’s musical partner. It was first performed in Huddersfield by the dedicatees during 1962.

It is always tempting to regard musical birthday gifts as ephemeral. The Intermezzo, a ‘mere’ 27 bars long, is a case in point. This was composed as part of the Léon Goossens’s 90th Birthday Celebrations held at the Wigmore Hall on 12 June 1987. Yet this short piece is full of good things. The music is simple, evocative, and concise. The oboe and piano weave its contrapuntal spell on the listener. It may not be a major work, but it is of the highest quality. This is a lovely, moving and satisfying piece that deserves a solid place in the oboe and piano music repertoire.

Despite living until 2005, Arnold Cooke ‘retired’ from composing in 1991 so, as far as his oeuvre is concerned, this ‘Intermezzo’ is a late work. It should be noted that the indefatigable John Turner ‘tempted’ Cooke out of retirement in in the mid-nineties to compose two works: A Little Suite No.2 (1993) for recorder and piano: and Songs of Innocence (1996) for soprano, clarinet and piano.

The liner notes are informative, fulsome and a model of their kind, with comprehensive details about each work that is not available from any other source. Performers’ details are included. I was surprised that there was no biographical sketch of Arnold Cooke. I accept that most devotees of this composer will know the basics. On the other hand, this disc will appeal to oboe music enthusiasts who may need a little introduction to Cooke’s life, times, and achievement. The playing in all these pieces is splendid, although I have nothing to compare the performances to. Certainly, the players encapsulate the vibrancy, the introspection, and the clarity of all these works. Equally captivating is the quality of the recording. The cover design is an evocative collage of Manchester including a tramcar, very unlike those running in 2020.

In my review of MPR 105 I noted that there are some 45 chamber works in Arnold Cooke’s Catalogue of Works. Mike Purton’s remarkable record label has now recorded 12 of them (plus the two-piano sonata). I do hope that this is an ongoing project. I did see that there were only four CDs proposed: perhaps some more may be envisaged. There are plenty more tantalising pieces to explore.

John France

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