The Pleyel Ensemble Revisits Cooke

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COOKE: Piano Trio. Piano Quartet.2 Piano Quintet1,2 / Pleyel Ensemble: Sarah Ewins, 1Benedict Holland, vln; 2Susie Mészáros, vla; Heather Bills, cel; Harvey Davies, pno / MPR 105

As a follow-up to their earlier album of Arnold Cooke’s violin sonatas which I reviewed, the Pleyel Ensemble in their entirely here tackles the same composer’s Piano Trio, Quartet and Quintet. The first two were written in the 1940s (1941-44 and 1948-49 respectively) while the third was composed in 1969.

As in the case of the other Cooke music I’ve heard, these pieces are lyrical with a modern bent, showing the influence of his great teacher Paul Hindemith, though in the end they sound very different from Hindemith’s scores. The Piano Trio in particular has a real late-Romantic sweep and feel about it but is more tightly constructed and contains more interesting stepwise and chromatic key changes than the usual Romantic piano trio. I should reiterate, as I said in reviewing Cooke’s violin sonatas and symphonies, that his music is not only well constructed and formally interesting but passionate and deeply felt. This was surely a good composer who doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. The second movement is particularly interesting in this respect, with arpeggiated melodic lines written over stepwise and chromatic descending piano accompaniment. The third movement also “moves around” in a similar manner, alternating between major and minor with impunity, whole tone scales and a few harmonic cracks in between.

The Quartet is cut from the same cloth, with rising chromatics and lyrical, rather tonal melodies that at times sound like American Indian themes, swirling around. The second-movement “Scherzo” consists of swirling figures with odd and unexpected pauses here and there. After the obligatory slow movement, Cooke returns to playfulness in a medium-fast finale in which he employs a rhythm, but not a melodic line, similar to Brahms’ first Piano Quartet.

Surprisingly, the Quintet begins very misterioso with the piano playing diatonic figures against long-held chords by the four strings. Then it takes off with an “Allegro” theme that’s very unusual and not so easy to follow—possibly Cooke’s reaction to the criticism that his music sounded “old-fashioned.” There’s a particularly odd passage in which the music moves up one tone at a time and the harmony similarly shifts with each note. Cooke continues to play this game with movement of the harmony throughout the movement. In the second, a very rapid “Scherzo,” he plays a similar game with whole tones in chromatic movement. Not too surprisingly, the slow movement is more harmonically consonant but no less original in its form, while the last movement is one of his most modern-sounding pieces, opening with edgy string figures which set the rhythm before moving into somewhat more melodic territory, but still with that bitonal edge. It almost has a Shostakovich-like feel about it. Just before the end, the music pauses and when the quintet comes back in it is at a slower pace but they then gradually accelerate to the original tempo for the brusque finale.

This is yet another outstanding recording of Cooke’s music, not to be missed!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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