Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Forgotten English Romantic: The Piano Music of Greville Cooke with works by Holst and Vaughan Williams

I have often related to anyone that would listen, that Greville Cooke’s ‘Cormorant Crag’ was a work I wanted to hear played by a fine pianist before I leave this world. I first came across the piece in an advert on the back of a now-forgotten piano album whilst sorting through a vast pile of music at David Hughes second-hand bookshop in Llandudno. It was sometime during 1972. I felt then, that this title was both evocative and picturesque. It was some dozen years later that I found a complete printing of the sheet music of ‘Cormorant Crag’ in the 1982 edition of the British Music Society Journal. It was presented as a part of an article on ‘Georgian Piano Music.’  Alas, it was well beyond my ‘sight-reading’ or even ‘working very hard at it’ skills on the piano. Yet, there was something about the figurations and patterns of the notes on paper and the layout and structure of the chords that convinced me that my earlier notions about this work were correct. I was able to ‘hear’ the music in my head. I deemed it to be in the same genre as music by Frank Bridge, John Ireland and Frank Bridge.  I had to hear it performed!

I was delighted when Duncan Honeybourne emailed me to explain that he was performing ‘Cormorant Crag’ at the 2014 English Music Festival. Other works by Cooke were to be included. Unfortunately, (?) I was on a Baltic Cruise on the day of his performance, but he assured me the CD was being issued at the same time. It was a dream come true. 42 years after first coming across this piece, I sat down and listened. I was not disappointed: it is everything I imagined- and much more. Cooke has written a masterpiece of the ‘genre’ that is as good as (or even better) than many of his ‘rivals.’  

Greville Cooke was born in 1894 and soon displayed an interest in music. Throughout his life, his musical activities were conducted alongside a career as a clergyman in the Church of England. He had good education at Hamilton House, Ealing before going up to the Royal Academy of Music. After studying with Tobias ‘Uncle Tobs’ Matthay, he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge as an organ scholar. Following a succession of qualifications he was ordained to the Anglican Priesthood in 1918. There is no record of any war service. In fact he seems to have been studying during the entire war. Cooke received his BA and B. Mus. in 1916.
After ordination he had ‘livings’ in Tavistock, Ealing, St Paul’s’ Cransley and Buxted. His final appointment, in 1955, was as a non-residential canon of Peterborough Cathedral. His incumbencies could not have been too stressful: he was concurrently a professor at the Royal Academy between 1925 and 1959 and was also in demand as an adjudicator at local music festivals.
Cooke’s musical catalogue inevitably included a number of anthems and hymns for ecclesiastical use: strangely no organ solos were written (as far as I can tell). On the secular side, he wrote songs, incidental music, a short Prelude for String Orchestra and a number of choral works. His main contribution is a small number of well-crafted piano works which maintain a subtle balance between being romantic and impressionistic.
Greville Cooke died in 1989 at a very convincing (and encouraging) 95 years old.

The present CD contains the majority of the piano music in Greville Cooke’s catalogue. This is complimented by works written by Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. I guess that Cooke’s piano works can be conveniently classified into two groups. Firstly ‘didactic music’ designed to give less-proficient players challenging and attractive pieces to play. The second group are the artistically and technically demanding works that are redolent of the landscape: these represent some of the finest examples of ‘nature’ evocations in the literature.   

The first piece of Cooke’s music that I actually heard was his haunting ‘High Marley Rest.’ This work was named after Tobias Matthay’s house in Surrey, High Marley, which has extensive views toward the English Channel. This residence became the focal point for much entertaining and musical endeavour by Matthay.   Honeybourne has quoted some words by Tennyson that sum up the mood of this impressionistic piece:
This red flower, which on our terrace here
Glows in the blue of fifty miles away
Green Sussex, fading into blue
With one grey glimpse of the sea.

‘Whispering Willows’ has a rather banal title which belies the musical quality of the piece. It was written for the composer-teacher-pianist York Bowen. This is music that cleverly paints a picture of a river, dappled trees and a warm day. The pianism is subtle and quite complex, yet never obscuring the basic simplicity of the mood.

I am not too sure about Cooke’s ‘Gothic Prelude’. Duncan Honeybourne considers it to be ‘…one of Greville Cooke’s most striking and original creations.’ He notes the ‘dark colour’ and the ‘torrential passion.’ There are some lyrical moments as well as a really ‘big tune’ that sounds as if it were written for a film. However, I find all a little over the top: a bit too relentless. Why Gothic? I am not sure. It is possible that Honeybourne is right in suggesting that it would ‘work’ as an orchestral piece; I feel that there is too much intensity and too wide a disparity of musical styles for it to be satisfying in such a short duration. I just need to hear it a few more times.
On the other hand In the Cathedral is very different, even introverted. It is very simply written with much imitation of themes and phrases: the climax is well contrived, without being overbearing. It is probably the least ‘romantic’ of Cooke’s works presented on this disc. There is a magic here that offers up an almost meditative feel that would not be out of place in a house of worship.
The ‘late’ Song Prelude (1955) is a little gem that wholly evokes the English countryside. It was subtitled ‘Harvest-tide Cransley, 1954’, which refers to the parish of Cooke’s incumbency at that time. This is an autumnal piece that is perfectly stated and ideally catches the mood of the season.  
The temper of Haldon Hills is also largely pastoral and reflective. Honeybourne notes the ‘rapt evocation of stillness’ that Cooke creates. The score is prefaced by a poem (included in full in the liner notes) written by the composer that defines the mood. There is nothing ‘out of place’ or ‘negative’ in these pages: just a contemplation of ‘the mists of gold and grey’ of Haldon Hills with their view towards the sea. It is a miniature masterpiece.
Meadowsweet is a little character-piece composed in a delightfully romantic style during the 1920s. It is reticent, largely self-explanatory and quite beautiful.
Reef’s End is another hugely impressive piece of impressionistic piano writing. It was composed in the early 1930s for the Matthay protégé Vivian Langrish. The material of this complex sound world is more chromatic than much of Cooke’s music and is piquantly dissonant in it powerful evocation of the scene. The technical devices that the composer uses to create the seascape are tried and tested – arpeggios, a wide range of dynamics, a shattering climax and chromatic figurations. Yet the piece is totally successful at creating a haunting, musical picture of some lonely, reef somewhere off the coast of the West Country…
I have noted Cormorant Crag above: this piece takes its title from a novel by George Manville Fenn written in 1895 and subtitled A Tale of Smuggling.  It was dedicated to Egerton Tidmarsh, who was another former pupil of Tobias Matthay.

Over the Hills – A Suite of Three Short Piano Pieces (1929) is a charming example of a short collection with less-experienced players in mind. This is not patronising music, but is a finely wrought set of musical pictures which capture the innocence of childhood (whatever age we are). The three pieces are well balanced with the thoughtful ‘So Fair a Field’ flanked by a dance-like, but just a little sad, ‘Skip-Step’ and a heart-achingly beautiful ‘Tree-Top Lullaby’ which opens the set. 

The Bargain Basement Suite (1936), is hardly in the same league as ‘Cormorant Crag’, nevertheless it is a fine set of ‘character-pieces’ that goes well beyond typical contributions by composers to this genre. There is a dry wit and a sense of fun about these seven short pieces that is wholly refreshing. Honeybourne suggests that we should not take these numbers ‘too seriously.’ I agree. The quality of the workmanship of each number is superb. Although this suite is not technically problematic, this is not simply ‘teaching music’: they deserve to be heard in its entirety, played by a professional pianist. Lookout for the Scottish flavoured ‘Genuine Reproduction.’

The final ‘suite’ by Greville Cooke presented on this CD is ‘Three Pieces’ dating from 1929. These, like Over the Hills, provide interesting and challenging material for the less-experienced player.  Duncan Honeybourne notes that the ‘transcendental complexities’ of Cooke’s more ‘virtuosic’ pieces is not present in these suites. This was a feature of a number of composers at this time. One need only think of the many suites and individual pieces by Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead and Thomas Dunhill. Yet each of these composers also wrote works that are technically demanding and containing deeper thoughts than the music they are best remembered for.

Gustav Holst’s ‘Nocturne’ was a relatively late piece, which along with the ‘Jig’ was written for the composer’s daughter, Imogen.  There are precious few piano pieces by Holst, most of which are relatively minor works within the canon. However, the present haunting ‘Nocturne’ is a perfectly-written example of the composer’s art, which encompasses a wide variety of emotions in a short form.  The right hand figuration is supported by a ‘tune’ in perfect fifths. The middle section is agitated and has considerably more angst.  Other versions of this work available on CD are by Anthony Goldstone and John McCabe.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is not noted for his piano music.  The Little Piano Book was issued in 1934 and was originally entitled Six Teaching Pieces for Pianoforte.  This is clearly pedagogical material in which the composer addressed a number of technical issues including part-playing and ‘lively articulation and accentuation.’ This is not dry music: the quality of each piece belies its original title.  Honeybourne selects the beautiful ‘luminous’ ‘Nocturne’ for especial mention.  Yet, for me it is RVW’s approach to the ‘invention’ that catches the ear. These contrapuntal forms are hardly regular features in the composer’s music, yet he managed to imbue them with a magic that removes them from simply workaday teaching pieces.

This CD is superbly presented in every way. The liner notes, written by Duncan Honeybourne are excellent, informative and interesting. The standard of playing is of the highest order: the recording is outstanding. Even the title of the CD – ‘A Forgotten Romantic’ – lends enchantment to this project.
As for the music, Greville Cooke is everything I always imagined he would be. The best of his music (‘Cormorant Crag’, ‘High Marley Rest’, ‘Haldon Hills’ and ‘Reef’s End’) hold their own against any piano music composed around the same time and in similar genre. And this includes Ireland, Bridge and Baines. This CD deserves to be a success: in spite of this being a byway of British music there is so much to interest, entertain, and move in the pages of Greville Cooke’s piano works. And the RVW and Holst give ‘added value’ to this disc.
I would love to think that Duncan Honeybourne, who is a considerable champion for Cooke’s music, would turn his attention and skills to Harry Farjeon, Leo & Evangeline Livens, Thomas Dunhill, Alec Rowley…

Track Listings:
Greville COOKE (1894-1989)
‘Gothic Prelude’ (1952)
‘High Marley Rest’ (1933)
‘Whispering Willows’ (1952)
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Nocturne (1930)
Greville COOKE
‘In the Cathedral’ (1929)
Over the Hills: A Suite of Three Short Pieces (1934) Tree-Top Lullaby; So Fair a Field; Skip-Step
Song Prelude (1955)
‘Cormorant Crag’ (1934)
Bargain Basement : A Suite of Seven Pieces (1936) Good Morning, Mr Harridge; Oddment (Superior Quality); Throw-Out (Greatly Reduced); Genuine Reproduction (Excellent Value); Cheap Line (Absolutely not to be repeated); Going for a Song (Yours for a tenor, fiver, 3d); Remnant (Only one left)
Ralph VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Little Piano Book (1934)
Valse Lente, Nocturne, Canon, Two-Part Invention in F, Two-Part Invention in E flat, Two-Part Invention in G
Greville COOKE
‘Haldon Hills’ (Devon) (1929)
‘Meadowsweet’ (1929)
Three Pieces (1929) A Sunny Morning; In the Park (Afternoon); An Evening Lullaby; Sundown (1953)
‘Reef's End’ (1934)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

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