Arnold Cooke (1906-2005)
Organ Music
Sonata No.1 in G, D118 (1971)
Fantasia, D 95 (1964)
Prelude, Intermezzo and Finale, D 87 (1962)
Sarabande, D34 (1960-1961)
Toccata and Aria, D104 (1966)
Suite in G, D167 (1989)
Impromptu, D105 (1966)
Prelude for Tudeley, D166 (1989)
Sonata No.2 in E, D146 (1980)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 2021, the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, UK
Toccata Classics TOCC0659 [81]

Harvey Davies’s outstanding liner notes helped prepare this review; I am grateful. I have evaluated the programme in the chronological order of composition.

Arnold Cooke began writing for the organ in the early 1960s. (The notes mention an unpublished Wedding March, D19, composed in 1936 for a family wedding.) The Sarabande was his first piece for the instrument to be published. It was originally for piano, the second movement of a Suite in C from 1943-1944. There is a little Hindemith in these pages, but more nods towards Bartók.

The earliest major work here is the Prelude, Intermezzo and Finale, a commission by Novello & Co. for their extensive series, the Organ Music Club. The liner notes sum up the opening Prelude well: it displays “a gentle, Hindemithian idiom leavened with a certain Englishness in it use of modal lines and harmonies…” The Intermezzo is signed to be played “mostly quiet and reflective, maintaining an even flow”. The Finale is jig-like. Despite fugal passages, it never descends to the pedantic, but keeps up its jaunty humour to the last notes.

Cooke’s remarkable Fantasia was commissioned by the Revd Dr Peter Marr, a former student of the composer. The notes mention the “improvisatory character” of the music, but this is not the full story. There are many contrapuntal explorations and some harmonic derring-do. This is an exciting piece, “academically constructed” and yet full of interest and vivacity.

Peter Marr also commissioned the Toccata and Aria. It was first heard on 22 April 1967 at St Giles Church, Reading, as part of the celebrations commemorating the centenary of the organ rebuild. The opening Toccata is powerful and dynamic, as all such titled pieces should be. The momentum barely slows down. The Aria, on the other hand, is introspective and just occasionally ominous in mood.

Impromptu was first published in OUP’s once popular Easy Modern Organ Music. (I confess to not finding any of these numbers easy to play.) The Impromptu is relaxed and cool, with its gentle exposition and slightly modernist, harmonic language.

In 1971, Arnold Cooke was commissioned by the Cardiff University Musical Department, under the auspices of Alun Hoddinott, to compose the Organ Sonata No.1 in G. Richard Elfyn Jones premiered it at the Cardiff Festival on 14 February 1973. The Sonata is in three movements. The Allegro moderato has two contrasting but well-balanced themes. The liner notes mention “harmonies based on fourths and fifths, the imaginative contrapuntal textures, cross rhythms and natural lyricism”. The Andante is melancholic in mood except for a short scherzetto section. The gem of the Sonata is the finale, Allegro con brio. After an opening flourish, two themes are contrasted. The first is a typically toccata-like figuration of semiquavers; then a gentler tune looks back to the slow movement. The piece concludes with a powerful “triumphant fanfare” and several loud chords. The entire Sonata is a fusion of Hindemith, Bartók and an undeniable English lyricism that nods to Walton and Vaughan Williams.

Nine years later, Cooke completed his Organ Sonata No. 2 in E. The impetus to compose it probably came from an organist named Eric Fletcher. It was premiered in Edinburgh in 1981. The Sonata is in four movements. It opens with a powerful Fantasia, described as “a sort of blend of fanfare, toccata, and carefully constructed counterpoint”. The thoughtful Aria is quite simply gorgeous, with its long breathed melodic lines, undulating counterpoint and gentle dotted rhythms. The Scherzo, in 6/8 compound time, fairly bounces along with lots of complex figurations, peppery harmonies and a slightly softer, but brief, trio section. The Finale harks back to the opening movements. An Allegro, it includes fanfare and toccata styles bringing the Sonata to a satisfying peroration.

Cooke’s penultimate organ piece from 1989 celebrated the new instrument at Tudeley Parish Church in Kent. The late Simon Preston gave the premiere performance. Prelude for Tudeley balances a powerful opening fanfare with a quiet melody. It builds up to a big climax, ending on a glorious E flat major chord. Cooke had lived at nearby Five Oak Green with his partner, William Morrison, since 1963. William died the previous year, so naturally, there is a tinge of sadness in this Prelude.

Cooke’s final work for the organ was the Suite in G. It is a fusion of a classical sonatina and various baroque tropes. The opening Chaconne explores a set of diverse variations, over a basso ostinato. The second movement is a lively Allegro vivace, neither cheerful nor melancholy, but strangely reflective. The Andante may once again be influenced by the death of Cooke’s partner: it is sombre in mood. The notion of a Baroque Suite is recalled in the concluding Allegro con brio. This good old-fashioned jig brings the work to a jolly conclusion.

The liner notes are superb. There is Harvey Davies’s major essay-length discussion about Arnold Cooke and the Organ. This includes an overview of the composer’s life and times, and a discussion of his musical style. Each of the pieces gets a detailed, always interesting commentary. Organist Tom Winpenny has provided a short paper on the magnificent Harrison and Harrison organ at St Albans Cathedral. The specification of the instrument is included. Finally, there is a resume of the soloist.

Tom Winpenny has become one of the leading organists on record. His expertise and technical command is clear in every bar of this recording, in stimulating and absorbing performances. Winpenny is a popular soloist in the United States and Europe. At present he is Assistant Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral. He has made recordings of a wide range of music, including discs devoted to Peter Racine Fricker, John McCabe, Malcolm Williamson, Charles Villiers Stanford and Edward Elgar. He has released five volumes of Messiaen’s organ music.

The recording, engineered by Andrew Post, is ideal. It is clear and resonant, allowing the listener to gain a sense of “being there”.

Any consideration of Arnold Cooke’s music eventually resolves on two question (posed by Harvey Davies): Has the frequent association of his name with that of his teacher, Paul Hindemith, ultimately been deleterious to Cooke’s standing as a composer? Is he simply too derivative: does he lack distinction?

I have noted before Malcolm MacDonald comment: what Cooke “really imbibed [from Hindemith] was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.” In other words, he was a master craftsman. Havergal Brian wrote as long ago as 1936 that Cooke “appears to think and breathe contrapuntally […] and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and [Richard] Strauss.”

So, Arnold Cooke’s music is a subtle fusion of German technique with a largely English sensibility. It is a perfect synthesis of styles.

John France

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