Arnold Cooke’s Violin Sonatas

Cooke cover

WP 2019 - 2COOKE: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata for Solo Violin. Duo for Violin & Viola / Pleyel Ensemble: Benedict Holland, vln; Susie Mészáros, vla; Harvey Davies, pno / MPR 103

Arnold Cooke? Who’s Arnold Cooke?? That was the question that went through my mind when I saw this CD, just waiting to be reviewed…by someone.

Born in 1906, Cooke learned cello, piano, organ and a bit of composition at the Repton School. In 1926 he went to Caius College in Cambridge where he received a BS degree…in history. He then studied with the noted musicologist E.J. Dent at Cambridge before spending three years studying with Paul Hindemith in Berlin. The liner notes tell us that “After a season as Director of Music at the Cambridge Festival Theatre in 1932-33, Cooke taught harmony, counterpoint and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music but went to London in 1938 before being enlisted in the Royal Navy during the war,” and didn’t resume composing again until 1946. Truly a Careerus Interruptus! But like Havergal Brian, he took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. He taught at the Trinity College of Music until his retirement at age 72, but kept on writing music until 1996, when he was 90. He lived to be 99, dying in 2005.

Despite his studies with Hindemith and his living through several changes in the shape and form of classical music, Cooke remained steadfast in his own style which was perched somewhere between late Romanticism and neo-Classicism. Moreover, it is wholly traditional in form and shape; Cooke’s themes are clearly defined, never ambiguous, and developed in a crystal-clear fashion along tried-and-true lines. You might think of him as a sort of 1930s-1960s version of Ethel Smyth or a more modern-sounding York Bowen.

The interest in Cooke’s music comes from his unfailing enthusiasm for his own work, which comes through in every page of his scores. This is not the same as saying that he was a narcissist although, as we have seen, even truly great narcissistic composers such as Wagner, Liszt and Sorabji could indeed turn out great works; rather, Cooke really enjoyed what he did and put his whole heart into it, and this is evident in the finished products. Soaring melodies—but not cloying or sugary ones—alternate with edgy fast passages using harmonies that move either stepwise or chromatically, all of it sounding natural in a way that flows. There never seems anything precious or self-conscious about this music. It just moves along at its own pace, giving great pleasure while stimulating the mind.

Moreover, the musicians of the Pleyel Ensemble evidently enjoy this music as well. Their performances are loving and joyous; they delight in every quirky change of harmony or rhythm, playing with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. They want you to enjoy this music as much as they do. In the second and third movements of the Violin Sonata No. 1, Cooke played with his listeners’ expectations by constantly changing tempo and rhythm, and these features are brought out brilliantly in these recorded performances.

Someone (I forget who) once said that all solo violin sonatas owe a debt to Bach, but in listening to Cooke’s solo sonata I doubt this. Except for the fact that the violin accompanies itself with chords on the lower strings while playing melodic lines on the top ones, there is almost nothing here of Bachian counterpoint or counter-voices. Rather, it sounds like a very fancy cadenza in a concerto, lyrical and singing although with good thematic development in a non-fugal manner. The amazing thing, to me, is this combination of styles. Not knowing as much about violin playing as I perhaps should, I always wonder how on earth a single performer can play sustained chords on the lower strings while playing a moving line above. I mean, you only have one hand to manipulate the strings, only four fingers because the other hand is using the bow, so how do you do these two different things at once? As a pianist, I know the trick of playing Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs so that it sounds as if three hands are playing  (you split and overlap the hands to reach certain passages), but as a non-violinist I’m still puzzling this one out.

From a compositional standpoint, the solo violin sonata is not markedly different from the first one with piano accompaniment. Cooke was still alternating lyrical passages with fast, edgy ones, and doing so in a clear pattern that all can follow. He achieved a somewhat haunting sound for the soloist in the third movement, played wistfully in the upper range without supporting chords, and in the finale he used rapid 16th in a serrated pattern, interspersed with pizzicato chords.

Oddly, the violin-viola duo almost sounds like a continuation of the solo violin sonata despite the fact that it was written 34 years earlier. It starts with an Introduction before the first movement proper, and Cooke managed to link his thematic material splendidly. In the Allegro first movement the two instruments engage in a Hindemith-like musical conversation, objectively pursuing variations on the theme and accompanying each other in counterpoint. The Andante second movement almost has, at times, a Russian feel about it while still pursuing the same objectivity in counterpoint.

The second violin-piano sonata, dating from 1951, begins with the kind of ostinato rhythmic figure that Cooke normally reserved for the middle of his movements, alternated here with somewhat more lyrical lines for the violin. This movement sounds eerily like something that Shostakovich might have written. In the second movement, at the 2:10 mark, Cooke used the same sort of descending passage of alternating notes that Mussorgsky used for the chorus in the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov. In the rapid last movement, he throws caution to the winds, creating a swirling series of interlocking figures for the violin and piano.

An excellent CD, well worth investigating.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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