Friday, 21 August 2015

Music by Roger Sacheverell Coke from Simon Callaghan

Roger Sacheverell Coke - Simon Callaghan - SOMM Roger Sacheverell Coke Preludes, Opp.33 & 34, Variations Op.37; Simon Callaghan; SOMM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 03 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Undeservedly forgotten music by a forgotten composer
Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972) seems to have virtually disappeared off the musical map. Yet he attended Eton, was an accomplished pianist and composer, spent his life writing and had a series of high profile performances and broadcasts. On this amazing, brave disc, pianist Simon Callaghan has unearthed two of Roger Sacheverell Coke's substantial works for piano solo, the 24 Preludes Opp. 33 & 34 and 15 Variations and Finale and recorded them for the Somm label.

Simon Callaghan - photo credit Ben Ealovega
Simon Callaghan
photo credit Ben Ealovega
Roger Sacheverell Coke was born into a well-to-do Derbyshire family in 1912 with a strong tradition of military service. Roger's father died during the first battle of Ypres and his body was never found; his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate. Roger's love of art and music were indulged by his mother and there was never any question of his following the family's military traditions. For his 21st birthday his mother converted the coach house and stable block into a music studio with a gallery capable of holding and audience of several hundred. He studied music with John Frederic Staton and with Alan Bush, and piano with Mabel Lander.

But he suffered from mental health disorders which seem to have been schizophrenia, had a heavy addiction to cigarettes (a was a hundred-a-day bloke), and was gay. His composing seems to have been a retreat, his composed 12 full scale chamber works, over 100 songs, orchestra works, six piano concertos, four symphonic poems, three symphonies, a substantial body of solo piano music and an opera The Cenci based on Shelly's play. Written to his own libretto between 1940 and 1950, it had a single performance in 1959 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens (Coke bore all the costs). It was a complete failure, condemned by the critics. His music had fallen out of fashion.

Listening to the music on this disc, Roger Sacheverell Coke's style seems to hark back to the first half of the twentieth century. The influences that jump out at you are Rachmaninov and Medtner, with some Scryabin thrown in. But closer inspection reveals other hints too, you feel that Bax is not too far away and John Ireland to. The music was all written in the period 1938 to 1941 and is vastly different in its unashamed romanticism compared to the music of Coke's almost exact contemporary Benjamin Britten. In fact during this period Coke's music had been extensively performed and he had been encouraged by such luminaries as Rachmaninov, Moiseiwitsch and Goosens, but for some reason he was never take up by a publisher. Coke seems to have been fated to remain on the side lines.


The Twenty Four Preludes for Piano date from 1938 to 1941 and were dedicated to his mother. They start in C major and move in rising fifths, each major prelude followed by the one in the relative minor thus making a satisfying whole. They form a huge sequence, each prelude of a different character and encompassing a series of bravura techniques. Individually you can pick out influences, but cumulatively they add up to something remarkable lasting nearly 50 minutes! Equally so, is Simon Callaghan's masterly performance which gives real romantic heart to the cycle and responds to the muscular poetry in Coke's music.

The Fifteen Variations and Finale in C minor date from 1939, they were dedicated to the pianist and exiled Romanov, Prince George Chavchavadze; someone whom Robert Matthew-Walker's booklet note says was 'noted for his considerable sexual athleticism and wide-ranging proclivities in that area'. It is an equally large scale and muscular work.

This is confident, resolute music of a style which was clearly determined by the composer. Coke was clearly no dilettante, and his style might have fallen out of fashion in the 1950's but we can now appreciated his significant achievement. In many ways the music reminds me of that of Medtner, like Rachmaninov but yet not, and only recently being discovered. Simon Callaghan in his blog on the Gramophone website talks of the excitement at the discovery of the music and we can feel that too. Simon now has his sights set on the piano concerto, personally I'm rather fascinated by the opera as well!



Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972) - 24 Preludes Opp.33 & 34 (1938-1941) [48.31]
Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972) - Variations Op.37 (1939) [28.15]
Recorded at the Old Granary Studios, Suffolk, 26-27 August 2015
SOMM SOMMCD0147 1CD [77.12]


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