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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Concerto for oboe and strings (1954) [19:49)
Oboe Sonata No 1 (1957) [18:43]
Léon Goossens (oboe)
Jacques String Orchestra/Reginald Jacques
Clifton Helliwell (piano)
rec. BBC broadcasts, July 1956 (Concerto) and February 1959 (Sonata)
OBOE CLASSICS CC2317 [38:30]

Last year MPR released Arnold Cooke’s complete music for oboe and piano and the Sonata for two pianos (review). Here we have another example of Cooke’s music for oboe but in historic performances by that most outstanding of instrumentalists, Léon Goossens.

Cooke’s Concerto was written for Goossens in 1954 and is a thoroughly engaging, quietly sympathetic work, one that would have been tagged ‘Cheltenham’ in days gone by, not always approvingly. It is, in fact, a four-movement piece of defined eloquence, nimbly scored for the string orchestra and offering numerous opportunities for the soloist. The Scherzo is a dextrous charmer, and the slow movement an Aria of expressive warmth without resorting to any kind of treacle. The finale is a Rondo of exciting flair and there’s no hint of brittleness at all. The score gives an estimated timing of 21 minutes, but the excitement of a live performance means that this broadcast is over a minute quicker. It was given in July 1956 direct from Eynsham Parish Church, Oxfordshire and one can hear a minimal amount of audience shuffling. The sound is just a bit boxy but the Jacques String Orchestra, led by Emanuel Hurwitz, under the eponymous conductor, Reginald Jacques, shows why it was one of the country’s premier string ensembles. The notes relate that coughs have been eliminated and that a 10-second piece of music is missing because of tape mangle but you won’t notice where; I certainly didn’t.

Sonata No 1 of 1957 was also written for Goossens, who edited it. This broadcast performance was given in February 1959 on the Home Service of the BBC in a programme called ‘New Music’. Eric Hope played Bentzon’s Dance Pieces, Op 45, Yfrah Neaman played the Violin Sonata of Leonard Scott and Goossens and long-standing BBC accompanist Clifton Helliwell finished the programme with the first broadcast performance of the Cooke. The Radio Times listing is marked as a BBC Recording so I wonder if the other two works survive; who, indeed, was Leonard Scott?

Jeremy Polmear, eminence grise of Oboe Classics, notes that Goossens takes a few liberties with the music but this is another beautifully moulded and eloquently performed example of Goossens on the wing, liberated from studio constraints and digging into new music with huge commitment. The opening slow panel unfolds in waves of quiet melancholy – Cooke seldom gave things away on a plate in matters of expressive candour - before some crisp interplay between the two instruments, Goossens ultimately recalling the earlier melancholy with touchingly expressive intimacy, his immaculate phrasing vesting everything with real life. The Andante is even more ravishingly sung, with rapt legato and control of dynamics, and his sense of colour vests the music with a real sense of narrative direction. With some hints of a Scotch Snap the finale is a real giocoso ride until its gentle end. Amidst all the applause for Goossens here, let’s spare a moment to remember Helliwell who was by no means as well known a broadcast accompanist as, say, Ernest Lush or Gerald Moore – he didn’t record much for one thing and led a more circumscribed career - but who is an adroit and admirable collaborator throughout (he was also a composer, arranger and conductor).

A CD version is available from Oboe Classics and has a simple four page note with full track listing. The Radio Times listing for the concerto is reproduced in small size but clearly, and you can find details of the sonata broadcast very easily online. Notes and disc are housed in a plastic sheath.

To have live Goossens material at all from this period is a great pleasure but to have two works closely associated with him and played and recorded so well is an even greater pleasure. The Sonata, in particular, contains some of the best and most intimate examples of Goossens’ art you will hear.

Jonathan Woolf

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