The surviving concertos by a neglected British composer, out of synch with the British mid-20th century main-stream but striking and fascinating nonetheless, in stunning performances
Pianist Simon Callaghan has already explored Roger Sacheverell Coke’s solo piano music in his 2015 recording of Coke’s Preludes on SOMM (see my review), now Callaghan has returned to give us more of the music from this neglected 20th century British composer. For the 73rd (!) volume of Hyperion Records series The Romantic Piano Concerto, Simon Callaghan joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins to perform Roger Sacheverell Coke’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in E flat major, Piano Concerto No. 4 in C sharp minor and the slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 5 in D minor.
The music on the disc represents all that survives of Coke’s six piano concertos, the composer destroyed the first two, the slow movement seems to be all that survives of the fifth and for a while it seemed that only the composer’s two-piano version of the third had survived.
Coke studied with Alan Bush, J Frederick Staton and Mabel Lander, who was a pupil of Leschetizky. With relative freedom from financial concerns and a music studio created for him in buildings on his family estate, Coke initially developed a promising career. Coke was a homosexual (which needn’t have been an obstacle in the British musical world of the time), but he also suffered from depression and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in hospitals. Performances of his music rather dried up after World War II and were mostly confined to his native Derbyshire. At his own expense, his opera The Cenci was given a performance in London in 1959 and was given hostile reviews by the critics, leading to severe depression.
His style was also very much at odds with the British musical climate of the day, quite how much can be judged from the Piano Concerto No. 3 which is a huge, Rachmaninov-inspired piece. Coke was a great admirer of Rachmaninov, visited him in Lucerne and Rachmaninov probably visited Coke at his home in Derbyshire. In three movements, the piece large scale (lasting around 30 minutes), and is full of rich orchestration and big romantic piano writing. The work was premiered in 1939 in Bournemouth with the dedicatee, Charles Lynch, playing the solo part.
Before we complain too much about the neo-Rachmaninov, it is worth bearing in mind that the composer was only in his 20s and the work is highly impressive for a young composer, and that Rachmaninov’s final symphonic works only date from a few year’s earlier. Coke’s writing represents a strikingly different strand to British musical consciousness.
That Coke’s musical style developed over time is fascinatingly documented by the concertos on the disc. The Piano Concerto No. 4 was composed in 1940 and dedicated to Eileen Joyce. Again in three movements, it is another big 30 minute work. Rather darker than the earlier concerto, with a brooding first movement and a dark dramatic third. Whilst the CD booklet article cites the influence of Scriabin, I found a lot of the writing, particularly that for piano, reminded me of Bax and Ireland.
It is interesting to consider the relationship of British composers to the piano concerto, Delius wrote one in 1897 which was played at the Proms between 1907 and 1921, and Stanford wrote three. It seems to have resurfaced after the First World War in remarkably big bold form, including RVW’s piano concerto of 1926 and John Foulds Dynamic Triptych of 1927-29. Bax wrote a number of concertante works for piano and orchestra but no specific piano concerto and of course John Ireland’s dates from 1930.
The sole surviving movement of Coke’s fifth concerto, presumed to be the middle movement, is a nine minute piece of sombre, and rather striking writing. This is a very definite voice, and a long way from the neo-Rachmaninov of the first concerto. Again, Bax and Ireland come to the fore and you rather regret the loss of the other movements of the concerto and the complete final concerto. It becomes clear, listening to this disc, that we need to place Coke with the group of other composers (including notable refugees like Berthold Goldschmidt) whose compositional style was at odds with British music of the 1950s and whose composing career was effectively frozen out by the musical establishment.
The performances from all concerned are admirable. Coke was clearly no mean pianist and the sort of composer, like Rachmaninov and Bax, who likes rich, strongly figured piano writing. Simon Callaghan takes it all in his stride, encouraging us to enjoy the sheer luxuriance of the piano writing and well supported by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This disc is clearly something of a labour of love, and we must be grateful for Hyperion to including it in their series.
Coke wrote a great deal more, including three symphonies and that tantalising opera The Cenci, so I hope that we get to hear more of his output. This disc is essential listening for anyone interested in an alternative history of British music. The fine performances make all three concertos a joy, but I particularly think that the fourth and fifth are essential listening.