Arnold Cooke’s Organ Music

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COOKE: Sonata No. 1 in G. Fantasia, Prelude, Intermezzo & Finale. Sarabande. Toccata & Aria. Suite in G. Impromptu. Prelude for Tudeley. Sonata No. 2 / Tom Winpenny, org / Toccata Classics TOCC 0659

When I first discovered Arnold Cooke three years ago, in an album of his violin sonatas, I had this to say about him:

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.

And that assessment clearly holds over into these organ works, most written in the 1960s although the first Sonata comes from 1971 and both the Prelude for Tudeley and the second Sonata come from the 1980s. Perhaps because he was writing for the organ, a complex instrument that could produce several “voices” at once, and not for violin and piano, his music here is more adventurous harmonically. Although never really atonal, it includes a great many passages in which the two hands play in conflicting keys and, even when it seems to establish a tonality, it constantly slithers in and out of it. The first movement of the Sonata No. 1 thus slithers around like snakes in a snake pit trying to escape. Of course I’m just being a bit fanciful by describing it thus; as usual, Cooke has a firm grasp on the musical structure, but its harmonic audacity is so arresting that it’s what impacts you most on first hearing.

Moreover, the enthusiasm that Cooke himself obviously put into writing these scores is redoubled by the playing of Tom Winpenny. You’d never guess from these recordings that he is not a world-famous organist, but “merely” Assistant Master of Music at St. Albans Cathedral, but then again, I’ve heard a few absolutely stunning church organists in my day, one of the vest being David Drinkwater who was organist at the very small Kirkpatrick Chapel on the campus of Rutgers University during the 1970s. Drinkwater could knock off organ works from J.S. Bach to Messiaen in his sleep, and I assume that Mr. Winpenny can do the same. His bio certainly suggests it, noting that he has played first performances of many contemporary organ works as well as giving recitals in San Francisco, Birmingham, Sweden and Germany.

Due to the nature of both the music, which is very legato, and the nature of the organ, which is to produce soft attacks and not hard ones, the slow movements on this album require more of your attention in order to catch all the numerous subtleties that Cooke put into his music. Yet it is surely in the faster pieces where Cooke allowed his imagination to run a bit wild, as these are fascinating fantasias, sometimes (as in the finale of the Sonata No. 1) using often varying meter. It is not music that would repel a casual listener, but it would certainly baffle him or her with its constant shifts. The most harmonically conservative piece in this set is the 1960 Sarabande, yet even this piece might raise the eyebrows of a musically conservative listener.

For any organ freaks reading this review, or those who simply have an interest in the instrument, the organ on which Winpenny played was built in 1958 by Peter Hurford, one of the most celebrated British church organists of his time. Using the then-latest organ designs out of Europe, it is, according to the liner notes, “based on the principles of open-foot voicing and relatively low wind-pressures that Ralph Downes (Hurford’s advisor)  had employed in his work on the landmark organ for the Royal Festival Hall, London, in the 1950s. Downes was closely involved with the scaling and voicing of the pipes, and he considered spatial separation of all divisions, with sufficiently wide scaling of wide-open flutes, important for the projection of sound.” In other words, it is not the kind of little squeezebox that poor Bach himself had to play, but the kind of larger, modern organs that he saw (and played) in other churches in his day and coveted dearly. Although not quite as bright in character as the 1960s organ of the Riverside Church in New York City which was played by Virgil Fox, it shares many of the same tonal qualities and characteristics.

If you listen carefully to the finale of the Fantasia, in which Cooke pits high crushed chords in the right hand against a booming, running bass accompaniment in the left, you’ll have a pretty good idea of its sonic capabilities. I heartily congratulate recording producer and engineer Andrew Post, apparently borrowed for this occasion from Vif Records, for his keen ear and highly intelligent microphone placement. Without making a big to-do of SACD sound, the St, Alban’s Cathedral Organ fills your living room with its sound, warm and as wide as a Cinerama movie. The miking is spacious enough to capture all of those low, warm tones yet bright enough to give “bite” to the upper range playing as well.

Listening to all of Cooke’s organ output at once, you do notice some musical trends (not re-used themes, but similar tempi and moods) running through them, but of course he himself never intended that you sit down and listen to his complete organ music in one long stretch as it is here. He wrote each piece at a different time for different organists and events, just as Bach and Messiaen did, and surely there are similarities in many of their organ works as well. Nonetheless, if you are a truly attentive listener, you will hear a great deal of invention, some of it quite subtle, going on in each of these pieces. Cooke knew what he was doing and was nobody’s fool. It is to his credit that not one of these pieces, not even the very short ones like the Sarabande, Impromptu and Prelude for Tudeley, are mindless trifles. Whether short or long, Cooke invested his full emotional and intellectual faculties into writing his music. He meant for it to last.

A very interesting album, then, particularly for organ-lovers.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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