Not a lot has been written about British composer Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972). He was born in Alfreton, Derbyshire, England to an upper middle class family. His father was killed during the First World War when Roger was only two years old. He studied with John Frederic Staton and Alan Bush (1900-1995). Mental health problems seem to have played a part in his failure to establish himself as a composer yet he wrote a considerable amount of music including chamber works, a large number of songs, six piano concertos, three symphonies and an opera.
It is no wonder that Rachmaninov became such an influence on Coke. The Russian composer stayed with Coke in Derbyshire and returned the compliment by inviting his fellow composer to stay at his house Senar on the banks of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Coke dedicated his Second Symphony to Rachmaninov.
In the absence of other sources, I am grateful to the excellent booklet notes by Robert Matthew Walker included in a new release from Somm Recordings www.somm-recordings.com of Coke’s Preludes, Op.33 and Op.34 coupled with his Variations, Op.37 featuring pianist Simon Callaghan http://simoncallaghan.com
Last year EM Records issued Roger Sacheverell Coke’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No 1 on a disc of similar works by Granville Bantock and Cyril Scott www.em-records.com/discs/emr-cd018-details.html So little has been available of this composer’s music that this new Somm recording is most welcome.
Of his Preludes, Op.33 (1938-39) No. 1 Appassionato is very much in the grand manner, full of stormy drama. Prelude No. 2. Andante brings some rather Chopinesque descending phrases before developing in a more advanced direction. No.3. Andantino reveals more of Coke’s distinctive style, rising from a thoughtful opening, through a rather sterner section to a subdued coda. It is hard not to hear the influence of Rachmaninov in Prelude No.4. Molto maestoso but in a wholly engaging manner with distinctive touches, particularly in the coda. No.5. Andantino has a looser feel, a free moving forward motion, again distinctive in character despite the descending phrases part way through that again recall Rachmaninov.
After a stormy, unsettled Prelude No.6 Presto agitato, the Prelude No.7. Grazioso has some lovely harmonies, a gentle dissonance and a lovely hushed coda. No.8. Lento maestoso has gentle, rippling phrases as well as moments of hushed, suspended beauty. Callaghan gives Prelude No.9. Leggiero scherzando a lovely rhythmic lift, beautifully paced and phrased. No.10. Vivace has a fine forward, rippling flow, beautifully played here with this pianist bringing a lovely persuasive touch. The most substantial of the Op.33 set is the Prelude No.11. Andante cantabile, a gentle, finely phrased work with moments of exquisite feeling. Scriabin comes to mind a little as the music builds, Callaghan revealing it as a particularly fine piece.
The 13 Preludes, Op.34 (1941) make up the total of 24 Preludes. No.12. Allegro scherzando brings an energetic opening before a very Rachmaninovian fall to a quieter section. When the music regains energy I detected a rather more desperate feel to Coke’s imagination. Coke brings some individual touches to the nevertheless rather Rachmaninovian Prelude No.13. Cantabile before No.14. Allegro assai where Callaghan brings a finely articulated flow, quite lovely. Prelude No.15. Andante cantabile has a rather withdrawn, thoughtful atmosphere before No.16. Andantino pathetico continues with a rather thoughtful, slowly developed idea, oddly distinctive.
The limpid, gentle harmonies of No.17. Moderato bring another distinctive piece, very engaging.
Prelude No.18. Presto agitato fairly hurtles ahead with some very fine fluency from this pianist. In the Prelude No.19. Allegro comodo it is lovely how Coke overlays the stormier motif with the flowing theme of the right hand. Broad phrases allow the gentler Prelude No.20. Languido e rubato to find its way slowly forward, beautifully developed. Prelude No.21. Amabile brings more of Coke’s distinctive harmonies and dissonances whereas No.22. Andantino has broader phrases that bring a more dramatic feel with some fine sonorities. Prelude No.23. Amabile brings some lovely harmonies, again so typical of this composer before No.24. Maestoso brings this cycle to a tempestuous conclusion with a dramatic descending motif showing this fine pianist in some terrific passages.
The Variations, Op.37 (1939) were dedicated to the Russian pianist Prince George Chavchavadze. The opening Theme: Lento sounds like a variation itself, such is its spacious, loosely held theme. It leads quickly into the brief Variation 1: Più Mosso before the rippling, beautifully developed, Variation 2: Allegro. Variation 3: Lento assai, doloroso seems to draw on the variation style of Rachmaninov, here finely phrased and paced. The shifting harmonies and freely felt construction of Variation 4: Allegretto brings more of Coke’s distinctive personal style before broad, firm phrases lead Variation 5: Moderato maestoso ahead.
There is a terrific Variation 6: Presto scherzando, fluently and brilliantly played and a Variation 7: Chorale - Andantino cantabile where Coke brings more of his personal touch with a hauntingly felt nostalgia. Callaghan displays a lovely touch in the rippling Variation 8: Andantino before a lovely, glowing Variation 9: Moderato, a really fine piece. Variation 10: Allegro molto energico is full of energy Coke bringing some unusual harmonies and sonorities, quite individual and finely played, full of brilliance and virtuosity.
Variation 11: Intermezzo - Andante rubato is equally distinctive with a carefully, gently picked out theme and just a hint of Scriabin. Variation 12: Andantino semplice e grazioso brings more attractive and distinctive harmonies, finely nuanced by Callaghan before the brief stormy Variation 13: Moderato appassionato. A fast fluent
Variation 14: Allegro risoluto with some exceptionally fine playing leads to the final
Variation 15: Largo doloroso where the Dies Irae plainchant, much loved and used by Rachmaninov, seems about to emerge, bringing a darker, brooding nature. The
Finale: Tempo di Tema suddenly lightens the mood as it rises up confidently before the quite coda.
For all the references that there are to Rachmaninov and Scriabin, one should not lose sight of Coke’s personal style that does emerge. These are rewarding works that deserve to be heard. This composer could not have a finer advocate than Simon Callaghan who receives an excellent recording from the Old Granary Studios, Suffolk, England. There are useful and informative notes by Robert Matthew Walker as well as a nicely illustrated booklet.