Léon Goossens plays Arnold Cooke's Concerto and Sonata No.1 for oboe

First things first. I reviewed these two works from a CD-R of a downloadable album. I have not listened to this latter version. I understand that this hard copy is available, priced £7, from Oboe Classics, and will appeal to people who would rather not download or stream. 

Putting these two pieces into context should have been an important part of the descriptive notes. Arnold Cooke wrote much chamber music, including five string quartets and many sonatas for various instruments. More specifically, there are numerous works featuring the oboe. They span six decades, from the earliest, an Octet for string quartet and woodwind, op.1 (1931) to the late Intermezzo for oboe & piano, dating from 1987.

Both works on this CD were composed in the 1950s. Other important music written at this time included the Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra, the Concerto No.1 for clarinet and strings, and the Violin Concerto.

I am more enthusiastic about the Oboe Concerto than Eric Wetherell (Arnold Cooke, British Music Society, 1996). There, he refers to it as a “slight work”, based on its duration. Yet, this Concerto is no piece of light music. It is typically cerebral rather than heart-on-sleeve and emotional. That said, the themes are attractive, and their exposition are always tightly controlled.  The Concerto was completed in 1954 and was presumably dedicated to Léon Goossens. There is no statement about this in the notes. The recording on this CD was made from “a mangled tape.” This has resulted in 10 seconds of missing music. I agree with Jeremy Polmear, that unless the listener is following the score, this will hardly be noticed.

The Concerto opens with a brisk Allegro moderato, which indulges in some eight-part string writing, rare in the “habitually clear textures if this composer.” This is followed by a vivacious Scherzo, which packs a lot of excitement into three minutes. The obvious heart of the work is the Andante. This is a beautiful Aria which I guess comes nearest to the idea of being “recognisably English in style.” This lyrical tune is supported by an idiomatic use of strings. The work closes with a spirited Rondo.

I feel that the composer’s use of a string, as opposed to a full, orchestra is justified here by giving the soloist the “maximum of limelight.” Yet the scoring is integral to the work’s success and is not just mere accompaniment. This Concerto has an intimate character, that may be best served at a smaller venue. At the 1955 Proms performance, the strings were apparently lost in the acoustic of the Albert Hall. In this present recording, they admirably serve their purpose.

In fine, this Oboe Concerto epitomises Arnold Cooke’s English-Hindemith-ian style - and is none the worse for that. And there is not a cow-and-gate in sight! 

Arnold Cooke’s Sonata No.1 for oboe and piano was completed in 1957 and was dedicated to Léon Goossens.  It is part of a sequence of four important chamber works for wind instruments written between 1956 and 1962. They include a Flute Sonatina (1956, rev. 1961), a Clarinet Sonata (1959), a Wind Quintet (1961) and the Clarinet Quintet (1962). The only one to have really taken off is the Clarinet Sonata, which has been beautifully performed and recorded by Thea King and Clifford Benson on Hyperion (CDD22027). Subsequent editions have been made since.

The liner notes explain that this present recording is in mono, but this does not detract from the splendid performance by Léon Goossens and Clifton Helliwell.

The entire Sonata is predicated on a simple melodic device. This is used skilfully to create a wide-ranging work full of interest. The first movement opens Andante with a long breathed and slightly lugubrious oboe melody, accompanied by an equally sombre piano part. Then suddenly, the pace takes off, with a lively and energetic Allegro. The movement ends with a revisiting, rather than a full recapitulation, of the opening material. The Andante comes closest to an evocation of the English landscape. This music is pastoral, but never descends into sentimentality. The middle section is more forceful in mood. The concluding Rondo: Allegro giocoso is harder edged in its response, but never deserts its lyrical base. It is a little Jig. In fact, this movement closes with a cyclical reference to the opening bars of the Sonata. One point of note is the closing cadenza, which is given to the piano rather than the oboe as would be expected.

What does Arnold Cooke sound like? The glib answer is (as noted above) that he is an English Hindemith-ian. But that is predicated on the reader being aware of Paul Hindemith’s contribution to teaching and composition.  In Cooke’s case, I think his style can be explained as music that is tonal, urbane, “emotionally reserved”, making considerable use of counterpoint, playable and accessible. And all leavened with an English lyricism that defies analysis.

Unusually for Oboe Classics, the descriptive notes for each work are minimal. These can be downloaded from the Oboe Classics website. There are no biographical notes about the composer and performers, although it could be argued there is always the World Wide Web!

The liner notes include a scan of the Radio Times listing for the Concerto advertising a broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 22 July 1956. Of interest, the Oboe Concerto was given its London Premiere at the Proms on 5 August 1955. Goossens was the soloist, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron.
The Oboe Sonata was given its premiere broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 19 February 1959. Whether these are the actual recording dates for both works remains to be seen.
The sound has been well cleaned and enhanced by Christopher Steward.

I was unable to locate another commercial recording of Arnold Cooke’s Concerto for oboe and string orchestra. There is none listed in Michael Herman’s discographies in these pages. For the Oboe Sonata, a great modern version is available on the Mike Purton label (MPR 108, reviewed here). This features Melinda Maxwell, oboe and Harvey Davies, piano.  

The added value of this Oboe Classics CD is twofold. Firstly, the privilege of hearing one of the world’s finest oboists perform these two works far outweighs any issues with the sound quality, missing bars or the packaging. And secondly, it gives the listener the opportunity to hear what seems to me one of the most enjoyable and interesting Oboe Concertos written by an English composer. Both works should be regular features in the recital room and concert hall. Alas, I somehow doubt this will be the case.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra (1954)
Sonata No.1 for oboe and piano (1957)
Léon Goossens (oboe), Jacques String Orchestra/Reginald Jacques, Clifton Helliwell (piano)
Rec. 1956 (Concerto), 1959 (Sonata)
OBOE CLASSICS CD-R copy of Download Album CC2317
With thanks to MusicWeb international where this review was first published.

Léon Goossens plays Arnold Cooke's Concerto and Sonata No.1 for oboe