COOKE: Symphonies 4 & 5 – BBC S.O. /BBC Northern S.O. / John Pritchard & Bernard Keeffe – Lyrita

ARNOLD COOKE: Symphonies 4 & 5 –  BBC S.O. /BBC Northern S.O.* / John Pritchard & Bernard Keeffe* – Lyrita REAM.1123 59:44 [Distr. by Naxos] **** :

The tonal, contrapuntal music of composer and teacher Arnold Cooke.

The long-lived Arnold Cooke (1906-2005) was a composer, and teacher at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM) and, after the second world war, Trinity College of Music in London.  He left a wide body of work, including a pair of operas, orchestral, chamber and instrumental music.  He studied cello, piano and organ and wrote for all three instruments.

Tonal, contrapuntal music became somewhat unfashionable after the 1940s, and especially later on at the BBC. But Cooke remained highly regarded there and elsewhere, being aired regularly, for example, at the Proms and at the Cheltenham Festival.  The BBC gave the first performances of some works, including the Piano Concerto with Louis Kentner in 1942, the First Symphony under Sir Adrian Boult in 1947, and the Fourth, whose premiere performance in 1975 is included on this disc.

After studying History at Cambridge University, Cooke took a second degree there in Music in 1929 and then spent three years at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik attending Paul Hindemith’s composition class and continuing studying the piano.  While his music has a flavor of its own, he seems to me on occasion clearly influenced by his celebrated German teacher.  Cooke’s music succeeds in being well-crafted, approachable and bearing of repeated listening, such is its high quality.  As Paul Conway points out in his excellent essay in the accompanying booklet, Cooke continued Hindemith’s idea of producing music for the talented amateur as well as the virtuoso professional; this gebrauchsmusik has encouraged many a young performer over the years.

The Fourth Symphony, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, was completed in 1974, and is in four movements.  Quick-paced first and last movements surround a slow second and scherzo third.  The first movement opens and closes with bold fanfares full of optimism and energy, with a more relaxed and soothing central part.  The dotted rhythms there are very much redolent of Hindemith in, for example,  Mathis der Maler, and reappear in the slow movement.  The music very much remains English lyrical rather than simply an imitation of his teacher.  After an uplifting scherzo, the last movement is powerfully energetic, assisted by fugal writing and the harking back to motifs in the first movement.

The Fifth Symphony, with the same architecture as the Fourth, was completed in 1979.  Again, the first movement has tremendous energy and forward momentum.  The slow movement has an air mostly of peaceful lyricism but with an underlying current in the depths.  The scherzo and trio alternate enormous energy and tight and varied rhythms in the scherzo with more bucolic airs and dances in the trio, and the final movement repeats the energy of the first with a finely written and powerful coda.

The live performances under Sir John Pritchard in London, and Bernard Keeffe in Manchester seem entirely successful, both played with the essential tight ensemble and rhythmic discipline the works need.  There is brief and well-deserved applause included after each symphony.

The recordings derive from Richard Itter, Lyrita’s founder, who spent many years recording on excellent equipment BBC broadcasts including those of musical rarities like these two symphonies of Arnold Cooke.  The tape has survived well, though it is surprising that recordings made in the 1970s and early 1980s were captured only in mono and not stereo; I can only guess that the BBC did not archive the stereo tapes at that time.  However, the recordings are in good mono and join Lyrita’s excellent stereo studio recordings of the First and Third Symphonies with the London Philharmonic under Nicholas Braithwaite in providing a good cross-section of Cooke’s orchestral music.  The Second Symphony has not been recorded and Cooke’s last, the Sixth, has yet to receive a first performance.  This release may well provoke increased interest in Arnold Cooke’s music. I do hope so.

—Peter Joelson

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