Cooke Quartets1 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, All Saints’ Church, Thornham, UK
Toccata Classics TOCC0696 [56]

This is the first of two volumes of Arnold Cooke’s five string quartets and presents the earliest (1933) and the last (1978) of the serious-minded but propulsive and contrapuntally fluid sequence. Cooke is known as a Hindemith student and he began work on his First Quartet shortly after returning from Berlin where he’d gone in 1929 to study piano with Schnabel and composition with Hindemith. This was very shortly after Hindemith had recorded as a violist with his Amar-Hindemith Quartet, including two versions of his own Fourth Quartet, something of which Cooke may have been aware.

The quartets are programmed 3, 5, 1 in this premiere recording. Cooke’s First Quartet, the longest of the three, is a well-proportioned and mature work that opens with a sinuous fugue and which seems to allude to his composition teacher’s Fourth Quartet. Cooke is in full control of the music’s textures ensuring that it thins towards the end of this substantial, imposing first movement. If the busy Scherzo and the Intermezzo – with its changes of pace and dryly witty March theme – never quite live up to the opening movement, the sinewy drive of the finale ends the work with resolve.

The Third Quartet followed in 1967, over 40 years later and it, too, is cast in four movements and generates considerable propulsive power through contrasting elements and crisp tensile writing. There is real lyricism in the slow movement over a kind of walking bass – Cooke’s lyricism is often overlooked – and it is constructively unsettled for a brief moment. The moto perpetuo Scherzo, though seriously conceived, contains a delightful and songful B section before the brightly voiced finale, laced with pizzicati.

Cooke functions well within his relatively circumscribed musical means, something that becomes emphatically clear with the last of the quartet cycle, a highly compressed nine-minute work in which one senses distilled wisdom in every bar as well as an avoidance of musical chaff. Cooke is certainly no exotic colourist but he uses certain devices well, such as dappled pizzicati, and he contrasts valuably within limits. Much here goes with a rhythmic swing and is as athletic as it is attractive. There is thematic unity in this quartet, which ends with an emphatic punctuation point, as if Cooke is saying: ‘That’s that.’

The Bridge Quartet play this music with commendable insight. The performing tradition of these quartets is exiguous. The First was premiered by the Griller Quartet at the time, but the first performance in recent years was given by the Bridge in 2022 who also performed the Third in 2023 (it was premiered by the English String Quartet in 1968) and the Fifth in 2021. This last was first performed by the Bochmann Quartet in 1979. So, the Bridge is familiar with this corpus of work, revealing it in one sweep, attuned to its grammar and occasional cragginess.

With fine booklet notes and a well-judged church acoustic that never congeals or spreads unhelpfully, this is a warmly welcomed disc for those who appreciate the single-minded art of a somewhat underappreciated composer.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Hubert Culot (September 2023)

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