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This release has been an exciting discovery

MusicWeb International, Stephen Greenbank
Recording of the month, July 2015

It’s fascinating to read about Simon Callaghan’s ‘unearthing’ of the music of the Derbyshire composer, Roger Sacheverell Coke. He was given a score of the composer’s 24 Preludes by a fellow pianist. Initially off-put by the meticulous detail contained therein, his perseverance won the day and there was no turning back. With echoes of Scriabin, Bax and Rachmaninov, the music struck a chord, and Callaghan became a man with a mission. With not much to go on apart from an entry in Grove (1955 Edition), he decided to research the life of this enigmatic composer. The Coke-Steel Archive at Chesterfield Library and the British Library proved valuable resources, the latter offering a late 1940s recording of Coke himself playing and discussing his music. Finally, Callaghan approached Somm and the 24 Preludes (1938-41) were recorded last year, coupled with the 15 Variations, Op. 37 from 1939.

Coke was born in Alfreton, Derbyshire in 1912, into an upper middle-class family. His father was a military man, who was killed in the opening months of the First World War at the battle of Ypres. Roger was only two at the time. Eton educated, his artistic temperament eventually began to develop. Interestingly, a nineteenth-century relative was Alfred Sacheverell Coke, a pre-Raphaelite artist. The family’s wealth was a positive asset to the young composer’s development. His mother converted a stable building into a music studio and furnished it with a Steinway grand. Coke studied music with John Frederick Staton and Alan Bush. The piano was to feature prominently in his compositions, which include three symphonies, six piano concertos, chamber works, solo piano music and a three-act opera The Cenci.

The 24 Preludes comprise two sets, Op. 33 containing eleven, and Op. 34 thirteen. Op. 33 opens emphatically with a Prelude marked ‘Appassionato’ consisting of a declamatory theme over an agitated and restless bass. Prelude No. 4 is cast in a similar mould, delivered by Callaghan with assertive passion. Prelude 7 ‘Grazioso’ is lyrical, as is No. 11. To my ear, No. 10 has a Chopinesque flavour. Prelude No. 12 which opens Op. 34 truly makes its assertive presence felt. No. 13, which follows, is more conciliatory in tone. Prelude 14 is painted with a rich palette of colourful harmonies. Nos. 15 and 16 are more introvert. Callaghan voices the chords admirably in 17, with 18 sounding busy and agitated. No. 20 is languid, as its marking suggests. The cycle ends in a ‘Maestoso’ of energetic, rhythmic power.

I have a preference for the Variations Op. 37, which are the product of an inventive and imaginative mind. They cover a wide emotional range, with Callaghan skilfully underlining the diverse elements. The beautiful theme is poignant, yet has a certain nobility. Variation 2 is upbeat, contrasting with the sombre, dark, tolling quality of the ‘dolorosa’ of Variation 3. Here I detected a Rachmaninov influence. In Variation 4, the pianist emphasizes the melodic line against an arpeggiated accompaniment. The exquisite Variation 9 is wistful, and in Variation 15, the Dies Irae seems to make an appearance.

The pianist’s dogged pursuit of the composer’s lost manuscripts, especially the score of his Piano Concerto No 3, has been fruitful. A visit to Griselda Brook and Christopher Darwin, niece and nephew of Coke, helped fill the gaps in the life of this troubled composer; he was a homosexual at a time when it was illegal, and suffered some schizophrenic episodes in his youth. The highlight of the visit, however, was Callaghan’s discovery that the missing manuscript of the Third Concerto was safely in the hands of Christopher Darwin. The pianist has hinted that this could be a further recording project – a tantalizing prospect.

For Simon Callaghan, this recording project has clearly been a labour of love, and his persuasive advocacy of this unsung composer is to be lauded. A comprehensive biographical portrait of the composer is provided by Robert Matthew-Walker, and the booklet is adorned with some interesting black and white photographs of Coke. The Old Granary Studios, Suffolk provide a warm, sympathetic acoustic allowing this music to be showcased at its best. For me, this release has been an exciting discovery.

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05/07/2020