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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Sonata No.1 in G for violin and piano (1939) [15:35]
Sonata for solo violin (1969) [16:24]
Duo for violin and viola (1934-35) [16:42]
Sonata No.2 in A for violin and piano (1951) [22:17]
The Pleyel Ensemble
rec. 2016/17, The Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK
MPR 103 [71:21]

I recently reviewed the second and third ‘volumes’ of Mike Purton’s recordings of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music for MusicWeb International. In Volume 2, I discussed the stylistic parameters of the composer’s music. Biographical details can be found in the introductory remarks to my assessment of Cooke’s Symphonies No.4 and No.5 on Lyrita REAM1123. I will limit myself to a repeating 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 tonality, spiced with dissonance, and a modicum of ‘Bartokian 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. As with my previous reviews of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music on the MPR label, I am beholden to Harvey Davies’s excellent liner notes for details of all these pieces.

Only one work on this CD has been recorded before. In 2005 the British Music Society issued a notable disc (BMS432CD) featuring three string sonatas by Cooke. These included the Viola Sonata No.2 (1937), the Cello Sonata No.2 (1980) and the Violin Sonata No.2 in A (1951). The album was re-released in 2014 by Naxos (8.571362).

I guess that Cooke’s Duo for violin and viola will never be a ‘popular’ work. It is, as the liner notes suggest, ‘austere’. That said, it is no academic exercise or ‘intellectual exercise in counterpoint.’ Jonathan Woolf, in his review of this release, has described the compositional technique as ‘playfully rigorous.’ It is a perfect description. The Duo was composed between 1934-35 when the composer was working at the Royal Manchester College of Music as a teacher of composition, counterpoint, and harmony. It was premiered by the South African violinist David Carl Taylor and the well-known Scottish violist Watson Forbes at the Royal Academy of Music on 4 March 1937.

The Duo opens with one of the composer’s trademark long ‘slow’ introductions. The remainder of this movement is predicated on the material presented in these bars. It is markedly contrapuntal throughout, with each instrument making its own headway. The liner notes state that the ‘andante’ presents an initial melody made up of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. It should be noted that this is not a strictly serial composition. This is intense music that adds to the Duo’s concentration and reserve. The finale is a tour de force. The melodies are once again highly chromatic with much focus on the interval of the perfect 4th (e.g. C to F). This all sounds technically demanding, especially the final ‘breathless presto.’ I listened to this piece three times through and am just beginning to ‘get it.’ There is much subtle lyricism and good humour hidden amongst the rarefied contrapuntal devices.

The immediate pre-war years were a busy time for Arnold Cooke. The liner notes list several important works composed between 1935 and 1940 including the Sonata for viola and piano (1937), the Sonata for two pianos (1937), the Concerto for piano and orchestra (1939-40) and the Passacaglia, Scherzo and Finale for string orchestra (1937), This latter work is surely a candidate for recording. The Sonata No.1 in G for violin and piano composed at this time, is probably the most immediately approachable work on this CD. It was devised for the violinist Thomas Matthews and the pianist Dora Gilson. The date of this Sonata’s premiere has not been established, but it was probably during 1939.

This Sonata is presented in three balanced movements. The work opens with the exposition of the two main subjects, the first of which is ‘soaring’ and the second is pensive. There is no development of these themes as such, but instead, a third subject is introduced which soon leads to the recapitulation and a surprisingly slow and meditative conclusion. All this is beautiful and relaxed music that seems at odds with the historical times. The heart of the work is the ‘pastoral’ ‘Lento’. Nevertheless, this is not quite as it seems. The middle part of this considerable movement is a lively scherzo, which blows away the cobwebs, before returning to the reflective slow music which now sounds almost heart-breaking in its wistful backward glance. Finally, the dance music returns for the last time. The last movement is really a little rondo. The main theme is easy going and urbane. However, it is subject to some novel twists and turns. One significant episode is when the violin plays a melody in harmonics with an abbreviated accompaniment from the piano (left hand only) which, according to the liner notes gives ‘the effect of someone whistling in the distance’. After the return of the suave melody, the work ends with a splendid coda and a powerful conclusion.

The Sonata No.2 in A for violin and piano was commissioned by the amateur musician Gerard Heller for his wife, the violinist Rosemary Rapaport and her musical partner Else Cross. The work was duly premiered at the Wigmore Hall, London on 17 May 1951. I noted in my review of the BMS CD that this Sonata was first heard during year of the Festival of Britain, and the work reflects much of the post-war optimism encouraged at that time. This is certainly obvious in the opening ‘allegro con brio.’ Naturally, there are some reflective moments, but the general mood is of happiness and joie de vivre. There is a good balance between rhythmic bounce and lyrical thoughtfulness. The atmosphere of the beautiful ‘andante con moto’ is truly inspiring. Jonathan Woolf (op.cit.) has suggested that this movement sits in a trajectory from John Ireland by way of Herbert Howells. It is a lovely, near-pastoral idyll that is not a cow leaning over a fence but is concerned with deeper matters and is valedictory in mood. Any sense of regret is overcome by the boisterous finale. This is ‘cosmopolitan’ music that requires no emotional anchorage in a bucolic landscape. There are moments of reflection here, the music is often lyrical, but the overall mood is one of excitement and optimism. The Sonata ends in a blaze of ‘post-romantic’ glory.

Eric Wetherell, in his monograph on the composer (British Music Society, 1996) explains that Arnold Cooke always ‘stressed the importance to him of sonata form’ and in a broadcast talk told ‘of his enjoyment in writing the commission from the Music Department of Cardiff University’ for a Sonata for solo Violin. The work was first heard during the Cardiff Festival at Llandaff Cathedral on 13 March 1970. It was performed by James Barton. The Sonata itself justifies the view that Cooke was an ‘English Hindemithian’. On the other hand, Bartok, who had written a similar work in 1944 is also a clear influence. This is a stark work that is well constructed in every detail. The opening movement, which is written in sonata form is proceeded by a long, slow introduction (separate track) and is followed by vibrant but often acerbic melodic statements and development. The slow movement is structurally of interest. It is nominally written in ternary form (three-part, ABA) but the reprise of the opening section is varied considerably. The middle section is complicated, with pizzicato, tremolos and counterpoints. The movement opens with a long cantilena that is poignant and haunting. The finale is a brilliant ‘molto allegro’ that is full of life. Here the composer indulges in cross rhythms, fast repeated notes, and pizzicato chords. There is a brief respite before the movement and the work comes to a broad and convincing conclusion. Arnold Cooke’s Sonata for solo Violin is not an easy work to come to terms with. Yet, there is much musical interest here that would reward the skills of any recitalist who chooses to ‘take up’ this rigorous work.

It is redundant to make a long-winded evaluation of the practicalities of this exploration of the ‘Complete Sonatas for Violin’. The sound quality of the MPR label always impresses, and the performance is excellent. Comparisons with the Susanne Stanzeleit (violin) and Raphael Terroni (piano) version of Sonata No.2 are unnecessary. Both are enjoyable, inspiring, and hugely competent. The liner notes by Harvey Davies are essential reading. Much detail is provided about each work. A brief, but useful biographical sketch of Arnold Cooke is included. There are the usual notes about the performers.

I know that a fourth volume of Cooke’s chamber music is planned by Mike Purton at MPR. I reiterate what I have said in my reviews of Volumes 2 and 3 of this valuable ‘cycle’. I hope there may be further CDs: there are many Arnold Cooke chamber works that demand to be recorded.

John France

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf
Benedict Holland (violin), Susie Mészáros (viola), Harvey Davies (piano)

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