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Unquestionably deserves to be explored and celebrated

Coke Hyperion

EPTA Journal, Alexander Thompson

Coke Piano Concertos – Hyperion

From an aristocratic Derbyshire family, Eton educated pianist-composer Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-72) is a figure who has become almost totally obscure. On the evidence of his highly persuasive, well-crafted and melodically attractive piano concertos 3-5 (recorded here for the first time) he wrote in a nostalgically romantic idiom, clearly heavily under the influence of Sergei Rachmaninov. The influence of the older Russian master’s first concerto is immediately obvious in the first movement of the 3rd concerto, written in 1938, where Simon Callaghan is clearly in his element, enjoying the abundance of double octaves whilst never losing melodic elegance nor beauty of tone. Perhaps there is a more of an affinity with John Ireland than romantic Russia in the same concerto’s central movement, a set of ten variations on a dreamily chromatic theme. Here as elsewhere the luscious orchestral writing, particularly in the strings, is unquestionably noteworthy. Some may find the 3rd concerto’s finale a little too cliché-ridden, lacking sufficient energetic resolve and bite. Though there are striking moments for solo violin, ‘cello and flute with piano accompaniment, overall it relies too heavily on sequences and common-place harmonic progressions, tendencies that are mercifully absent in the other movements.

The opening of Coke’s Fourth Concerto (1940) will inevitably remind the listener of Rachmaninov’s Third, though the music is more cinematographic than this famous precursor. Callaghan clearly relishes the thick, busy textures in Coke’s solo part, and there is no denying the vivid excitement and contrasting colours that are presented. Perhaps World War 2 is responsible for the dark, ominous characterisation in its first movement. This is pessimistic, grim and rather rhapsodic writing that owes much not only to Rachmaninov but also to Sibelius, and even early/middle period Scriabin. As with the slow movement, there is also a harmonic affinity with John Ireland. But just how memorable and individually striking this music is will remain open to subjectivity. What does remain an indisputable and constant recurring tendency through all the movements on the disc is the beauty of Coke’s orchestration- and in this -characteristically excellent- Hyperion recording the BBCSSO are obviously enjoying the abundant opportunities for colouristic celebration that they are afforded. This is certainly evident in the introspective, at times hauntingly disturbed slow movement. Music that can be unsettling and anguished, with a searching longing that demands attention. Unfortunately, the finale of no. 4 is less persuasive- as with the last movement of the 3rd concerto, there is an intrinsic lack of conviction and drive to much of the writing, which consequently appears incoherent and overly complex as a result.

The sole surviving movement of Coke’s fifth and final concerto, a slow movement is impassioned and beautifully orchestrated, providing the performers with a wonderfully lyrical vehicle for expressive music making. A happy conclusion to an intriguingly mixed bag of music- but one which unquestionably deserves to be explored and celebrated.

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04/08/2020