…And Here Are Arnold Cooke Symphonies!

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COOKE: Symphony No. 4* / BBC Symphony Orch.; John Pritchard, cond / Symphony No. 5+ / BBC Northern Symphony Orch.; Bernard Keeffe, cond / Lyritas REAM.1123 (live: London, *January 15, 1975; +July 17, 1981)

I hadn’t known, before reading the back of this CD, that Lyritas Records began through the pioneering work of one Richard Itter, who began recording BBC broadcasts on high-quality tapes beginning in 1952, and yet never played them in order to retain pristine sound. So here we have two live performances of symphonies by Arnold Cooke, the first of them (from 1975) the first performance of that work.

The notes for this release rave about the fourth symphony in that it “has a certain Brucknerian grandeur.” I beg to differ. Cooke’s symphony lacks the boring repetition and pomposity of Bruckner, a composer I consider to be one of the biggest frauds and blowhards in the entire history of classical music, while retaining his adventurous sense of harmony which Bruckner completely lacked. Indeed, the opening movement has a certain quality reminiscent of Walton at his best, except that the thematic and harmonic language are clearly Cooke’s own. He sets up a wonderful motor rhythm in the basses against the high strings, brass and winds, and this again sets him apart from Bruckner, who had no motor rhythms at all—his music just lay there like a giant lump of crap from start to finish. (I used to joke with my musical friends that of Bruckner saw God, he must have been bored to tears by the experience because his symphonies and organ works are so awful.) Even the slow second movement, which has its own sort of grandeur, has movement and energy behind it. It isn’t half as uninteresting as Bruckner, and at the halfway point Cooke set up a wonderful passage in which the low strings play against both high strings and brass in a very exciting manner. Counterpoint is the name of the game in this symphony, and this theme continues into the very jaunty third movement (Bruckner and jaunty are two words that never go together) as well as the lively fourth.

What surprised me most about this performance, however, was not the music but the conducting. My prior experience with John Pritchard has mostly been in opera, and primarily that of Mozart, where his conducting was about as stodgy as the average Bruckner work, but here he is wide-awake and quite scintillating. Well, every dog has his day and all that.

The fifth symphony, from a 1981 performance, still has traces of Cooke’s lyrical qualities and harmonic adventurousness but is even more concise in expression. Apparently his style never really changed, but as he matured he found ways of having his say with greater brevity. Perhaps he might, as a composer, have been aware of the similar change that occurred in the 1940s to Havergal Brian? But Cooke’s music never assumed the austere intellectual coldness of late Brian; it always had life and blood in it—as I mentioned in my review of his violin music, a happy sort of energy. Yet the second movement does bear a certain resemblance to Brian’s symphonies; though cleverly written, the musical progression seems a bit more clinical and less “personal,” if you know what I mean. But he returns to form in the “Scherzo” with its quasi-Spanish flavor, and the finale starts with a trumpet fanfare that would seem to be the start of a Rakoczy-type march but instead turns into a typical Arnold Cooke-styled movement, complete with shifting tempi ad rhythms as well as the occasionally quirky harmonic twist. Towards the end we do get a sort of march tempo for the finale.

This, too, is a superb disc and a good introduction to Cooke’s orchestral music. Both pieces are well played and, for their time, stunningly recorded.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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