MusicWeb International, Stephen Greenbank – CD of the month
It’s two years since Simon Callaghan’s pioneering accounts of the piano music of Roger Sacheverell Coke were released on the Somm label, and I had the good fortune to review them. It was a fascinating discovery for me as I had no prior knowledge of the composer. At the time, Callaghan was researching the life of the enigmatic composer at both the Coke-Steel Archive at Chesterfield Library and the British Library. His grit and determination paid off when he discovered that the missing manuscript of the Third Concerto was lodged safely in the hands of Christopher Darwin, Coke’s nephew. Since that time, what was a long held dream has become reality and here are the three extant concertos with No. 5 surviving as a second movement only. Callaghan has meticulously prepared the score and parts of Concertos 4 and 5.
Coke was born in Alfreton, Derbyshire in 1912. His family were well heeled. His father was killed in action in the opening months of the First World War at the battle of Ypres; Roger was only two at the time, so he was brought up by his mother Dorothy. He was sent to Eton, where his artistic temperament began to develop. Interestingly, a nineteenth-century relative was Alfred Sacheverell Coke, a pre-Raphaelite artist. On his return to the ancestral home, Brookhill Hall, his mother converted a stable building into a music studio and furnished it with a Steinway grand; it was to remain a creative base for the rest of his life. Music studies were with John Frederick Staton and Alan Bush. An accomplished pianist, the piano features prominently in his oeuvre, which includes three symphonies, six piano concertos (of which only two complete, plus one isolated movement survive), chamber works, solo piano music and a three-act opera The Cenci.
After some early success his reputation began to fade. There are several reasons for this. One was that he eschewed modern trends and, as a disciple of Rachmaninov, his music remained rooted in a Romantic tradition. His heroes were Bruckner, Mahler, Bax and Sibelius. He was highly self-critical of his music and this resulted in him withdrawing his first twelve opuses, including the first two piano concertos which, surprisingly, had received some initial acclaim. In his early twenties he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and mental health issues throughout his life lead to lengthy spells in hospital.
Composed in the matter of a few weeks in the autumn of 1938, the Third Piano Concerto presents a lushly Romantic canvas, clearly influenced by Rachmaninov. It was premiered in Bournemouth in 1939, by its dedicatee Charles Lynch. Coke regarded it as his finest composition. The opening movement has a strong Russian flavor, and is rhapsodic in its intensity. Yet there are also moments of tender reflection. The end is enigmatic, with the music fading away in the closing bars, leaving a question mark. Next comes a theme and ten variations. The theme sounds quite impressionistic. Coke evinces an adept imaginative skill in the construction of the variations, calling for effects such as staccato chords and rippling arpeggios. Orchestral textures in this movement are, for the most part, kept light and transparent. Callaghan’s achievement of myriad tonal hues adds greatly to the allure. Bold and declamatory gestures supply vigour and potency to the finale, with the music interspersed with more sober passages. It closes with an impressive sweeping flourish.
Two years later in 1940 Coke wrote his Fourth Concerto in C sharp minor, dedicating it to the pianist Eileen Joyce. He premiered it himself the following year. I have to say that the work is a much harder nut to crack than its predecessor, but after several hearings I prefer it to No. 3. It is more advanced harmonically and structurally, and it yields a wealth of riches to those with determined perseverance. Its seductively chromatic harmonies suggest a Scriabinesque terrain, wildly imaginative and almost sensual. The landscape is constantly shifting. The first movement is dark, brooding, stark and austere and, at times, exudes a mystical aura. A shorter Intermezzo follows, with lightly textured orchestration supporting an expressive piano line. The finale’s turbulent opening has an urgency about it. The piano enters with a “gossamer-like delicacy”, as the composer described it. The music feels as though it’s not at peace with itself. Halfway through the brass herald in a brief stormy section. Powerful piano chords and an exuberant romantic sweep at the end call time.
The Fifth Concerto had a three-year gestation from 1947-1950 and was named after a certain ‘F. Orton’. Its sole surviving ‘slow’ movement is darkly etched. Occasionally, shafts of touching lyricism break the austere thread.
This is Volume 73 in Hyperion’s ongoing Romantic Piano Concerto series. All works on the disc are first recordings.
Simon Callaghan’s commitment to Coke’s cause is to be lauded. As with all the recordings I’ve heard from the Hyperion stable, the sound quality is exemplary. Martyn Brabbins’ inspirational direction draws the very best from the orchestral players.
The first-class annotations by Dr. Rupert Ridgewell, Curator of Printed Music at the British Library, are translated into French and German.