Gourlay Conducts Premiere of Cooke’s Last Symphony Alongside Unusual Schumann and Elgar

09/09/2016

Cooke, Schumann, Elgar: Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello), BBC Philharmonic/Andrew Gourlay (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 7.9.2016. (RB)

Arnold Cooke: Symphony No.6
Edward Elgar: Enfants d’un rêve, Op 43
Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor

The Salford Quays studio, which seats an audience of about 300 people, is the home of the BBC Philharmonic. There the orchestra conduct rehearsals and give concerts which contribute to BBC Radio 3’s broadcast output quite apart from their mainstream concert series.

What brought me to this unconventionally structured concert was the premiere of the sixth and last symphony by British composer Arnold Cooke (1906–2005). The standard ‘factoid’ about the long-lived and musically prolific Cooke was that he had been a pupil of Hindemith although the voice of that composer is only lightly heard. Cooke never espoused the avant-garde sounds and techniques we associate with the period 1960-80 and after considerable attention during the previous three decades suffered an eclipse in terms of numbers of performances.

Over the years the BBCPO has been no stranger to Cooke. During its days as the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra it gave the premieres of the Clarinet Concerto No. 2 and the Concerto for Orchestra. Bernard Keeffe conducted them in a midday concert including the Fifth Symphony in 1981. The sixth and last symphony by Arnold Cooke is in four movements. Broadly speaking these run: quick, slow, scherzo and finale. It plays in total for about 35 minutes. Cooke completed the work in 1984 and it is the only one of his symphonies to be written other than in response to a commission. Explorers can hear all but the Second Symphony on various Lyrita CDs: 1 SRCD203; 3 SRCD295; 4/5 REAM1123.

The orchestra had only seen the score the afternoon before the concert but I heard no evidence of this. The music was presented fluidly and with a joyful confidence. The writing shows a high and long-honed craft. It is not lush in the sense that Bax can be lush. Instead it is prepossessed and seems to know what it wants to say. The textures are clarified without being skeletal. The writing is melodic and revels in the long line rather than stuttered fragments. The melodies are not self-indulgent and their contours suggest a relationship with musical kith and kin including Rawsthorne, Lambert and Alan Bush. Cooke has a good sense of progressive propulsion which asserts itself immediately in the taut first movement. A lapping motion with a rapid urgent pulse impels things forward carried by the strings. The drums add grandeur and there’s a trace element of anxiety to counter-balance the generally life-enhancing character of the writing.

The second movement is slow and pastoral with just a hint of the green-leaf pastoralism of Hadley and Vaughan Williams. A deeply affecting melody is carried backwards and forwards across the orchestra with solos for oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet and cello. The brass add a horizon-remote sliver of anxiety; the resulting shiver that reminded me of the panicky angst that sweeps through the woodland in Havergal Brian’s Wine of Summer. Towards its close there is an episode that momentarily echoes the gale in Tapiola. The celesta gently and sweetly touches in the healing elements of this most affecting movement which ends with a perfectly held note for the three horns. The busy-lively Scherzo is exhilarating rather than witty. It reminded me of the same movement in Alan Bush’s Nottingham Symphony. How can one tell on a single hearing but while the finale is lively and engages heart and mind it seemed to end far too soon given all that had gone before – the symphonic mien under-done, perhaps hastily constructed and feeling perfunctory. That said this work has much fine writing and the sooner we hear it again the better. It is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 12 September 2016.

The Cooke was concisely and valuably introduced by Harvey Davies, Teaching Fellow in Historical Performance and Staff Pianist at the Royal Northern College of Music. His current speciality is the life and works of Arnold Cooke. Much of the factual background I have given about the symphony derives from Mr Davies’ spoken introduction.

The concert concluded after a suitably hushed and lulling Enfants d’un rêve (Dream-Children) by Elgar. Dating from the composer’s prime decade my impression is that it has done better on disc than in the concert hall; at least in terms of numbers of performances. The Elgar piece picks up on a theme continued in two BBCPO concerts next week when the studio audience will hear the two Wand of Youth suites and the Nursery Suite.

Unusually the concert concluded with the Schumann Cello Concerto. This was in the hands of young Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. You may have heard him last year in Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody and Elgar’s Cello Concerto; the Elgar with the BBC Phil under John Storgårds. The Schumann enjoyed a finely calibrated performance with the excellent Hakhnazaryan and orchestra taking adeptly to this hyper-lyrical work in three movements. There is little drama and the concerto’s incessant singing qualities are aided by the fact that the movements are played attacca. It’s more seamless reflection than craggy heroism. This is not the most gripping Schumann but it enjoyed a good performance which held the attention.

Rob Barnett

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