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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Symphony No. 1 (1947) [36:40]
Concerto in D for string orchestra (1948) [16:07]
Jabez and the Devil – Suite from the Ballet (1959) [18:02]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. Watford Town Hall, 1 February 1989 (Sym); Henry Wood Hall, London, 6 February 1988 (Concerto); Kingsway Hall, London, 7 January 1974 (Jabez)
LYRITA SRCD.203 [70:53]


 


I am convinced that one of the major problems in approaching Arnold Cooke’s music is the presumption that it owes virtually everything to Paul Hindemith. At least this seems to be the prevailing view amongst the few music critics that I have read. Most listeners will acknowledge Hindemith as a well-known composer and teacher, yet I guess he is not universally popular beyond Germany. There is a thinking abroad that somehow Cooke sold-out on his Britishness to become a kind of Germanic clone. On the other hand there is a prevalent expectation that an English composer should write music in a recognisably nationalistic style: perhaps making use of folk tunes or nodding to the vocal lines of Tallis or the romanticism of Elgar. Yet this assumption would destroy the reputation of a number of fine British composers. Think of Lennox Berkeley and his French connection, or Vaughan Williams’s valuable lessons with Maurice Ravel. And what about the Frankfurt Group including Balfour Gardiner and Cyril Scott? All these composers have absorbed teaching from French or German composers yet have retained to a greater or lesser degree a sense of Englishness. So it is with Cooke.

Arnold Cooke was Paul Hindemith’s only English pupil, and it is fair to say that he learnt much from his teacher. Malcolm MacDonald sums this up in the programme notes to this CD. He writes that what Cooke "really imbibed was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach." As Havergal Brian wrote in 1936, Cooke "appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss." And note here Brian's reference to the Elizabethans.

Finally, Arnold Cooke had a deep love for English literature. Although he did not set a great deal of texts, those that he did set suggest a fine response to poetry and a sensitive ear for "choral sonority".

This is not the place to write even a short biography or musical study of Arnold Cooke. There is plenty of information available on MusicWeb and a fine booklet written by Eric Wetherell and published by the BMS that may still be purchased from that Society.

The Concerto in D for String Orchestra was commissioned by the South American division of the BBC and was played on that radio service in 1948. However the first concert performance was at Malvern some three years later. The programme notes suggest that it has little in common with contemporary essays – for example Ireland’s Concertino Pastorale and Tippett’s Double Concerto. There is certainly little here that suggests the English landscape or the musings of rustics on a summer’s day. However this misses the point. MacDonald suggests Bartók and Stravinsky as possible models, and I can see his point. Yet, I was forcefully reminded of Lennox Berkeley. Maybe we can both agree on the writer’s allusion to RVW’s Concerto Accademico?

The title of ‘concerto’ may be a little misleading. It is not a solo concerto and neither is it really a concerto grosso. The solo instruments emerge "briefly for textural and colouristic effect". The opening movement is full of energy and movement. The second, an ‘Andante sostenuto’ is the heart of the work. This is described as an elegy and is worthy of the title: deep music that tugs at the heart-strings. Yet it is never sentimental. How this treasure can have lain hidden all these years is a mystery to me. This, to my ear is one of the great utterances of English music. The last movement once again reminds me of Sir Lennox. It is a cheerful counterbalance to the deep thoughts of the ‘Andante.’ Here, if anywhere, with the ‘jig’ and the ‘pastoral lyricism’ we feel that Cooke approaches an ‘Englishness’ that is somewhat removed from Hindemith.

The First Symphony was composed in 1947, when Cooke was 41 years old. As a work it is hard to discuss, the reason being that I have never heard it before and I have not had the opportunity of hearing the following five! In addition a ‘first’ symphony may be typical or atypical of the composer’s subsequent output. Yet if we consider this work as a stand-alone composition it will be seen on first impressions to be a worthy addition to the catalogue of 20th Century British Symphonists. Time, repeated hearing and critical reception of this CD will tell if it is to be regarded as ‘great’. However, the general opinion of the critics seems to be that this work represents the first major statement of Cooke’s fully developed style – a style that was to change comparatively little over the next half century.

There are a number of possible models for this work including Hindemith’s Symphony in E from 1940. The British exemplars of that time would have been Walton’s B minor and Vaughan Williams’ 4 and 5. However it is fair to say that Cooke neither parodies nor cribs from any of these works. What he has written is original and quite personal.

There are four movements with the first being the longest. Interestingly the classical model is altered, with the scherzo coming second. It seems pointless in giving a full analysis of the work as this is well done in Malcolm MacDonald’s sleeve-notes.

The general mood of the Symphony as a strong and robust work is immediately apparent in the opening movement. This is in a reasonably traditional sonata form. Yet interestingly, the tempo does not slow up for the second subject. There is some fine brass writing, particularly for the French horns. A good balance is maintained between what may be deemed ‘aggressive’ and ‘lyrical’ music.

The second movement is not really a proper Scherzo. The classicist would tell us that the ‘trio’ is missing. The impression is of activity: the momentum never seems to stop. It is not quicksilver - more of a whirlwind. There is a swing and a swagger to this movement that continues unabated to the very last bar.

The heart of this work is the elegiac slow movement. This is deeply considered music, timeless and beholden to no man. Here we find music that may nod, according to MacDonald, towards Bach or perhaps even the Elizabethan viol school. However all this ‘source criticism’ is small beer compared to the overarching power of this expansive and frankly sad music.

Fortunately the tension is diminished during the finale. This is an exuberant excursion into the world of festivals and fanfares. Lots of different themes and figures and episodes are tossed around before the work concludes with a fine coda.

Arnold Cooke was commissioned by the Royal Ballet to write a work for the 1961 season. Jabez and the Devil is based on the American writer Stephen Vincent Benet’s ‘The Devil & Daniel Webster’. Jabez is a poor peasant who makes a pact with the devil. As in all these stories, wealth and fame and fortune are short-lived. Jabez attempts to outwit the devil by tearing up the pact so as to avoid pay-back time. Of course the devil is finally triumphant and claims the soul of poor old Jabez.

Critically the ballet was well received, with the writer Andrew Porter declaring that this was the most successful ballet since Benjamin Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas. No small praise!

The Suite’s Introduction is truly spooky before being followed by a rather vigorous ‘Dance of the Devil’. It is as if Satan is looking to make mischief. Soon we happen across a village where the locals are making merry. The Fiddle Polka is interrupted when the Devil grabs the instrument to ‘show them how it is really played’. The Waltz is rather sinister – it is certainly not romantic. This is the moment when the Devil makes his proposition to Jabez. A number of dances follow revealing a group of demons in their true colours: a Slow Dance portrays Jabez’s wife and the villagers mourning the loss of her husband to the Devil. The Devil is driven away from the hamlet in the novel Percussion Dance - portraying the villagers beating the pots and pans to scare away the personification of evil. The finale accompanies the apparent victory of Jabez over his tempter; however this is not the true end of the ballet. In fact Cooke uses less than half of music from the full ballet score – so the suite does not really mirror the story. But ‘nathless’ we are left in no doubt about the moral of the tale. This is fine music that well portrays the events of this ballet. The suite Jabez and the Devil is a great introduction to Arnold Cooke’s orchestral works. There is nothing complex or high-brow about this music: it is a truly approachable work.

It is instructive to have a brief look at Cooke’s representation in the CD catalogues. Strangely his most popular work would appear to be his Nocturnes for soprano, horn and piano. These are setting of poems by such diverse poets as Shelley, Rosenberg and D.H. Lawrence. Three recordings of this work are available. One of these is coupled with the setting of some of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’.

Recently the British Music Society [BMS 342] has released a recording of three important chamber works: the Second Violin Sonata, the Viola Sonata and the Second Cello Sonata. This has been well received by critics. Hyperion has been the most generous record company to Cooke with three works appearing on three separate releases. These include the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano [Hyperion CDA 22027] the Concerto for Clarinet No.1 [Hyperion CDA 55069] and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings [Helios CDH 55105]. It is interesting to note the preponderance of clarinet works on this label!

Yet even the briefest of glances at the composer’s opus list reveals huge swathes of his output the have been ignored by the record companies. It would hardly be expected that his large-scale opera Mary Barton would be available; however his main musical contribution of chamber music and orchestral works is woefully represented. It seems to me astounding that a British composer with six symphonies to his name should have only one of them available on CD. It says much about how we as a nation regard our composers.

As usual with Lyrita the quality of the production is excellent. One cannot fault the playing of the LPO and their conductor Nicholas Braithwaite. However it is only fair to say that I - and most listeners - have nothing to compare these recording with!

This CD is an important addition to the musical repertoire of English music. Cooke may not be in the top five composers and I guess he will never feature in Classic FM’s Top 100 works. Yet he is a major player who has produced a catalogue of consistently fine music that is well constructed and convincingly scored. His musical language is always accessible and provides a balance between ‘Euro–music’ and a lyrical Englishness.

The present recording is a great start to what must surely become a re-appraisal of Arnold Cooke’s orchestral and symphonic music. In fact, this is not so much a reappraisal but an opportunity for the vast majority of listeners to discover this composer’s music for the first time.

John France

 


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