Cooke’s Music for Oboe

MPR108 cover

COOKE: Sonata for Oboe & Piano. Sonata for Oboe & Cembalo (or Piano). Intermezzo. Quartet for Oboe & String Trio. Sonata for 2 Pianos* / The Pleyel Ensemble: Melinda Maxwell, ob; Harvey Davies *& Helen Davies, pno; Sarah Ewins, vln; Susie Mészáros, vla; Heather Bills, cello / MPR 108

My regular readers know how fond I am of the fascinating music of Arnold Cooke. I reviewed no less than three CDs of his music in one month, September of last year, and raved about all of them.

This most recent entry presents his complete music for oboe in addition to his Sonata for 2 Pianos, written between 1937 (the 2-piano sonata) and 1987 (the Intermezzo). As in the case of his other music, it shows an excellent sense of construction along with a fertile imagination. One listens to Cooke’s music as much for the sheer pleasure it affords as much as for the way he handled his musical materials, and that makes it quite different from many modern composers for whom effect is the sole reason for their music. Cooke kept one eye on structure and the other on an imaginative use of musical materials.

There are so many little things one notices in these works that it is difficult to write of them all in a review. Not least among them is the way he balances the rhythm and harmony so that they follow one another in lockstep rather than trying to “impress” the listener by making them independent and discrete features of his scores. For me, personally, however, I’m not really partial to the sound of a solo oboe though Melinda Maxwell plays the instrument very well indeed. One of the problems I have with the instrument is its astringent tone, interesting in an orchestra but not so pleasant over long stretches of solo exposure. Another is that it doesn’t seem to have much to say in terms of dynamics contrasts. One can play it loudly or a little softly, but not much else. Nonetheless, the first two sonatas were composed for two of the finest English oboists of their day, Léon Goossens and Evelyn Rothwell, the latter of whom was Mrs. John Barbirolli. But bless Cooke’s heart, he tried to write interesting pieces for them and he succeeded.

With that being said, I enjoyed the Oboe Quartet better than the sonatas for the simple reason that you have three other instruments in the mix that can play varied dynamics and thus give some feeling to the music.

What I found interesting about the two-piano sonata, written when Cooke was only 31 years old, is already in his mature style that we recognize from the later works. Yet in a sense this piece has a more vibrant feeling for rhythm than one senses in the later pieces, and is quite upbeat despite the continuous use of bitonality. I really liked it, both as a composition and also the performance.

The reader will correctly assume that although I admired the oboe works I wasn’t all that enthused by them, but if your tolerance for oboe playing is higher than mine you will surely enjoy this disc.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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