Cooke String Quartets v1 Toccata TOCC0696

Arnold Cooke (1906-2005)
Complete String Quartets Volume 1
String Quartet No 3 (1967)
String Quartet No 5 (1978)
String Quartet No 1 (1933)
Bridge Quartet
rec 2022/23, All Saints’ Church, Thornham, UK
Toccata Classics TOCC0696 [56]

Arnold Cooke, Paul Hindemith’s longest-surviving pupil in England, became a hugely prolific composer. He wrote in almost every genre – even two operas and a ballet. There are six symphonies and several concerti, piano music, much chamber music including five string quartets, and vocal and choral music. Not much of all that has been recorded, and little was performed more than once. He belonged to something of a lost generation of composers, not progressive enough when the serial school of music’s flag was flying high. Having been Hindemith’s pupil helped little: the German composer’s last works fell out of fashion fairly quickly.

In short, odds were against Cooke, although there was a time when his music was heard on the BBC. He was also busy with a number of academic positions. He taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later at Trinity College in London. He had gained a place at Gonville and Caius College of the University of Cambridge when William Glock was Organ Scholar. The University awarded him a doctorate for his First Symphony (review).

Chamber music features prominently in Cooke’s output. His five string quartets, written over 45 years, are undoubtedly the core. He wrote the String Quartet No 1 in the year after his return from Berlin. It is a substantial, ambitious work “showing the influence of Hindemith in its melodic lines, its harmonic language and in its strongly contrapuntal character” says Peter Marchbank in his well-informed insert notes. The first movement is a short fugue, another nod to Hindemith, whose Fourth String Quartet opens with a fugue. Cooke borrows the first three notes of Hindemith’s fugue subject to begin his own; this is yet another precious titbit I found in Marchbank’s notes. The mood is somewhat relieved in the next movement, a lively, light-hearted Scherzo which shows another facet of Cooke’s talent. The ensuing intermezzo marked Allegretto precedes the final Presto. This is an accomplished and sure-handed work by a composer who at that stage of his career already had the means to achieve his aims.

The String Quartet No 3, composed thirty-four years later, is also ambitious. The composer had gained much experience over those years, but his music had retained a number of characteristics. The first movement Allegro energico is again strongly contrapuntal. The slow movement Andante is in a decidedly more lyrical vein, contrasting with a central, martial section. The third movement is a brilliant dance-like Scherzo cast as a moto perpetuo. The Quartet concludes with a lively finale, ending on a “resounding unison”. While preparing this review, I returned to Eric Wetherell’s short monograph published by the British Music Society to mark Cooke’s 90th birthday. He mentions Bartók, whose music exerted some influence on Cooke’s music-making, at least at that stage of his development.

Cooke’s fifth and last string quartet is a somewhat shorter work, more compact but strictly argued. It has three concise movements played without a break, but structurally it may be experienced as a four-movement work in three sections: the opening Moderato is followed by an Allegro that actually combines elements of scherzo and slow movement. The piece is rounded off by a lively finale, Presto, with some brief fugal gestures. While short, the work encompasses a wide range of emotions and conceals a remarkable formal ingenuity, the mark of a real master.

The Bridge Quartet play with immaculate technique and understanding. The fine recording and the informative notes add value to a release that does full justice to Cooke’s solid and strongly crafted music. Volume 2 is eagerly expected.

Hubert Culot

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Colin Twigg (violin), Catherine Schofield (violin), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)