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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra (1954) [19:47]
Sonata No 1 for oboe and piano (1957) [18:43]
Léon Goossens (oboe)
Clifton Helliwell (piano)
Jacques String Orchestra/Reginald Jacques
rec. 1956 (Concerto), 1959 (Sonata)
OBOE CLASSICS CC2317 [38:30]

My review is based on a CD-R of a downloadable album rather than on downloaded files. Such a hard copy, available at £7 from Oboe Classics, may appeal to people who would rather not download or stream.

It should have been an important part of the descriptive notes to place these two pieces in context. Arnold Cooke wrote much chamber music, including five string quartets and many sonatas for various instruments; numerous works feature the oboe. They span six decades, from the 1931 Octet for string quartet and woodwind Op 1 to the late Intermezzo for oboe and piano from 1987. The works on this disc were composed in the 1950s. Other important music written then included the Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra, the Concerto No 1 for clarinet and strings, and the Violin Concerto.

I am more enthusiastic about the Oboe Concerto than Eric Wetherell (Arnold Cooke, British Music Society, 1996), who refers to it as a “slight work” because of its duration. Yet, this is no piece of light music. It is typically cerebral rather than heart-on-sleeve and emotional. That said, the themes are attractive, and their exposition are always tightly controlled. The Concerto, completed in 1954, was presumably dedicated to Léon Goossens, though the notes do not say so. This recording CD was made from “a mangled tape”, which has resulted in 10 seconds of missing music. I agree with Jeremy Polmear: unless the listener is following the score, this will hardly be noticed.

The Concerto opens with a brisk Allegro moderato, which indulges in some eight-part string writing, rare in the “habitually clear textures of this composer”. There follows a vivacious Scherzo, which packs a lot of excitement into three minutes. The obvious heart of the work is the Andante, a beautiful Aria which may come nearest to the notion of “recognisably English in style”. An idiomatic use of strings supports this lyrical tune. The work closes with a spirited Rondo.

I feel that the composer’s use of strings rather than a full orchestra is justified: the soloist gets the “maximum of limelight”. Yet the scoring, integral to the work’s success, is not mere accompaniment. This intimate Concerto may be best served at a smaller venue. At the 1955 Proms performance, the strings were apparently lost in the acoustic of the Albert Hall. On this recording, they admirably serve their purpose. The piece epitomises Cooke’s English-Hindemithian style, and is none the worse for that. And there is not a cow-and-gate in sight!

The Sonata No 1 for oboe and piano, completed in 1957 and dedicated to Léon Goossens, is part of a sequence of important chamber works for wind instruments. There also are the Flute Sonatina (1956, rev. 1961), the Clarinet Sonata (1959), the Wind Quintet (1961) and the Clarinet Quintet (1962). The only one to have really taken off is the Clarinet Sonata, which has been beautifully performed by Thea King and Clifford Benson (Hyperion CDD22027). Subsequent editions have been made. According to the liner notes, this recording is in mono, but even so Goossens and Clifton Helliwell give a splendid performance.

The entire Sonata is predicated on a simple melodic device, used skilfully to create a wide-ranging work full of interest. The first movement opens Andante with a long-breathed, slightly lugubrious oboe melody, accompanied by an equally sombre piano part. Then suddenly the pace takes off with a lively and energetic Allegro. The movement ends with a revisiting, rather than a full recapitulation, of the opening material. The Andante comes closest to an evocation of the English landscape. This music is pastoral, but never descends into sentimentality. The middle section is more forceful in mood. The concluding Rondo: Allegro giocoso, a little Jig, is harder-edged in its response, but never deserts its lyrical base. The movement closes with a cyclical reference to the opening bars of the Sonata. One point of note is the closing cadenza, which is unexpectedly given to the piano rather than the oboe.

What does Arnold Cooke’s music sound like? The glib answer, noted above, is that he is an English Hindemithian but the reader would have to be aware of Paul Hindemith’s contribution to teaching and composition. Cooke’s style can be explained as music that is tonal, urbane, “emotionally reserved”, making considerable use of counterpoint, playable and accessible. And all leavened with an English lyricism that defies analysis.

Unusually for this label, the descriptive notes for each work are minimal; they can be downloaded from Oboe Classics. There are no biographical notes about the composer and performers, although it could be argued that the World-Wide Web is always there. The liner notes include a scan of the Radio Times listing for the Oboe Concerto, advertising a broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 22 July 1956. By the way, it had its London Premiere at the Proms on 5 August 1955. Goossens was the soloist, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron. The Oboe Sonata had a premiere broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 19 February 1959. Whether these are the actual recording dates for both, works remains to be seen. The sound has been well cleaned and enhanced by Christopher Steward.

I was unable to locate another commercial recording of Arnold Cooke’s Concerto for oboe and string orchestra, and none is listed in Michael Herman’s discography on this site. Oboist Melinda Maxwell and pianist Harvey Davies recorded a great modern version of the Oboe Sonata (on the Mike Purton label, MPR 108 – review).

The added value of this Oboe Classics disc is twofold. The privilege of hearing one of the world’s finest oboists perform these two works far outweighs any issues with the sound quality, missing bars or the packaging. And it gives the listener the opportunity to hear what seems to me one of the most enjoyable and interesting Oboe Concertos written by an English composer. Both works should be regular features in the recital room and concert hall. Alas, I somehow doubt this will be the case.

John France

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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