In the last few years recordings of the music of Roger Sacheverell Coke have introduced an almost unknown composer to the discography. In the vanguard has been Simon Callaghan who recorded piano concertos three, four and five (a surviving movement) for Hyperion’s ‘Romantic Piano’ series, solo piano works for Somm and returns for a thorough exploration of the three Cello sonatas, of which these are the first commercial recordings (there’s a non-commercial recording of No.2). There’s also a recording of the rather bleak First Violin Sonata on EM Records.
Everything I’ve heard of Coke’s music, which is admittedly not a huge amount – and only includes that which has been recorded – sounds equivocal and hard to read. Structures are not always easy to follow and it’s the case here that the Third Cello Sonata has a more explicitly clear structure than the first two sonatas. Moods too are difficult to interpret. This is uneasy music.
Yet it’s certainly not without interest, notwithstanding its often more austere profile. It possesses a bittersweet lyricism and explores the higher and lower registers of the cello, in the First Sonata, that generates a creative tension. There are ruminative elements as well as ardour in cello lines that ultimate withdraw from the kind of late-Romantic eloquence that one might have expected. The droller elements of Coke can be sampled in the Scherzo of this sonata, a kind of Pink Pantheresque movement, if you will, puckish and laced with pizzicati. If the finale reminds one of anyone it’s not, say Bartók, but more Bloch.
Coke was known to have revered Rachmaninov and some of the powerful piano chording in these works owes its place to the Russian composer, and there are plenty of opportunities for melancholy and thwarted dance drama, even in the elegy-rich lines of the slow movement of the Second Sonata of 1938. The finale here is unusually extrovert for Coke, and he can’t help slipping in a quotation from Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto. In both finales of the Second and Third Sonatas he constructs a compact series of variations; indeed, the last sonata ends very quietly – as well as nostalgic-melancholic central movements.
I can’t imagine greater advocates than the Wallfisch-Callaghan team.
The duo explores every facet of Coke’s music and that includes passages of ambiguity, and of unresolved, indeed seemingly irresolvable emotive dilemmas. This is not music of efficiency and fluency. It is somewhat crabbed, and unwilling to let the listener in, or to provide conventional answers. Coke may have cited Alan Bush and Arnold Bax as major influences – the former was his teacher – and he may have toured widely with pianist Charles Lynch, a major Bax and Rachmaninov interpreter, but he offers up few stable or unequivocal answers in his music.