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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, D98 (1965) [21:25]
Quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, D93 (1964) [16:29]
Sonatina for alto flute and piano, D156 (1985) [13:31]
Pavane for flute and piano, D112 (1969) [3:41]
Prelude and Dance for clarinet and piano, D142 (1979) [4:50]
Alla Marcia for clarinet and piano, D38 (1946) [4:31]
The Pleyel Ensemble, Jonathan Rimmer (flute, alto flute), Janet Hilton (clarinet), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano)
rec. 5-6 September 2018 (Trio), 27-28 October 2018 (Quartet, Pavane, Prelude and Dance, Alla Marcia), 19 December 2019 (Sonatina), Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

This fascinating new CD pushes the total number of recorded chamber works by Arnold Cooke towards half of those in his catalogue. Bearing in mind that Cooke is hardly a household name, this is a noteworthy achievement by any stretch of the imagination. Mike Purton Recordings have been at the forefront of this project; this latest disc complements three previous CD releases on his label. In total, 18 pieces of chamber music have been issued on these discs.

The opening work on this disc is the longest and the most profound. The Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, D98, was commissioned by the Hilary Robinson Trio, and was premiered by them at the Wigmore Hall on 9 December 1965 (not 9 January 1966 as stated in the liner notes).  The Trio has four movements, which balance considerable gravity with playfulness. Much use is made of counterpoint in the development of the musical material, especially in the opening Allegro non troppo. With its metrical twists and turns, the Scherzo is reminiscent of Bartok, a composer whom Cooke admired. Unsurprisingly, the heart of this Trio is the melancholy third movement, Lento ma poco con moto. It is one of the most beautiful passages of Cooke’s music. Here, he achieves a near perfect synthesis of his Continental and English influences. The finale lightens up the mood; it fairly bounces along. The Times reviewer of the premiere performance notes that the composer had not attempted to move with the times: “the players keep to their own seats and their own written notes…” (ignoring those traits of the then contemporary avant-garde). Cooke has been true to his own musical precepts: the “concise, no-nonsense kind of Hindemith-inspired logic that he has for many years made his own.”

The Quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, D93 was commissioned for the Macnaghten Concerts. These significant events originally ran between 1931 and 1937, under the auspices of Anne Macnaghten, Iris Lemare and Elisabeth Lutyens. The concerts were restarted in 1952 as the Macnaghten New Music Group, with financial support from the Arts Council. The booklet notes that Arnold Cooke had several compositions performed at these events.  The Quartet takes as its model Paul Hindemith’s Quartet for clarinet, strings and piano (1938), which was freely admitted by the composer. Nevertheless, this would seem to apply to its structure, rather than the aesthetics; his music is more angular and dissonant than Hindemith’s exemplar. The overall impact “is darker and perhaps of a less jovial tone than many of Cooke’s chamber works.” This seriousness is countered by a vivacious tarantella finale, but even this is tinged with anxiety.

It is easy to consign sonatinas to the category of teaching music, yet, who would write off John Ireland’s and Maurice Ravel’s examples of this genre for piano as pedantic? Arnold Cooke wrote his Sonatina for the rarely used alto flute and piano around 1985.  I enjoyed this reflective piece; it is “uncomplicated, economical, and attractive.” Like the Ravel and Ireland works mentioned above, there is nothing trivial or ephemeral about it. At thirteen minutes’ duration it is substantial. The use of the deep-toned flute provides much depth to this music; even the rapid finale is introspective rather than extrovert.

The liner notes state that Cooke, like his teacher Paul Hindemith, was not averse to writing for slightly obscure instruments. There is a Sonata for harmonica and piano D116 (1970), a Suite for three viols D140 (1978-79) and a modern example of a work for brass ensemble, the Sextet D11 (1931).

The Alla Marcia was published in 1947. It was specially written for Alan Frank at Oxford University Press. The title is a little misleading as there is little here that resembles a march. It is a good, old-fashioned minuet and trio which presents thoughtful and lyrical material. It has a “dainty touch of humour” that is characterised by the two soloists “chasing each other in imitation”, but never quite catching up. Despite being designed as teaching music, it is equally at home in the recital room.

Equally effective is the Prelude and Dance for clarinet and piano. This piece, also didactic, was commissioned for Josef Weinberger’s Jack Brymer Clarinet Series, Volume 2, for advanced students. It was published in 1980. Stylistically, the Prelude and Dance owes more to the impressionism of Debussy, than the Gebrauchsmusik (Utility Music) of Hindemith. It is a real treat.

Equally lacking in pedantry is the lovely Pavane for flute and piano composed in 1969.  The liner notes explain that it is not serial in construction, but the opening melody does traverse all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. A wide-ranging chromaticism pervades this work, but it still manages to sound ageless in effect. It is a fusion of Hindemith and Debussy, with a touch of Cooke’s English magic. It was included in OUP’s Modern Flute Music (1971) alongside works by Kenneth Leighton, Colin Hand, John Addison, William Mathias, Phyllis Tate and Arthur Veal.

Biographical details about Arnold Cooke can be found on MusicWeb International.  The excellent liner notes are written by the present pianist, Harvey Davies. They are detailed, informative and enjoyable.  This is hardly surprising, as Davies is currently completing his doctoral thesis on the composer and his music. Like all good notes, they balance biography, context and analysis but are not too technical. The “D” numbers have been assigned by Davies. The sound quality of this CD is ideal. The playing is committed, and clearly the Pleyel Ensemble relish Cooke’s remarkable musical style.

Whether there are more recordings in the offing remains to be seen but whatever the business case for English Chamber Music may currently be, Mike Purton Recordings have made a major contribution to recording of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music. A key genre currently missing from CD are the five string quartets.

Arnold Cooke is a composer I can do business with. Typically, his compositions do not exhibit the cerebral gymnastics of Serialism, nor the sentimentality of Pastoralism. I appreciate his sympathetic balance between the Continental rigour of technical construction and a definite English sensibility which defies analysis.

John France

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