Wednesday 14 May 2014

Phillip Cooke - Choral Music

Phillip Cooke is a young composer who is currently a Lecturer in Composition at Aberdeen University, and this disc on Regent Records contains a selection of his recent choral music. From 2008 to 2010 Cooke was Career Development Fellow at the Faculty of Music, Oxford University and a Junior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford University and much of the music on the disc is linked to this period. Performed by the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Onyx Brass, Timothy Parsons and conductor Sarah MacDonald the disc includes Cooke's Morning Service, Evening Service, Three Partsongs, The Glory of Zion, Verbum caro factum est, O salutaris hostia, Invocation and The Hazel Wood.

The disc opens with Cooke's Morning Service, a Te Deum and Jubilate written in 2011 and 2012. They were written for the female choir Aurora Nova (recorded here in versions for mixed choir). The Te Deum was written for the choir to sing at St Paul's Cathedral, with the requirements that it needed to be singable, readable and almost instantly performable. Like most of the music on the disc this is gebrauchsmusik.

In the CD booklet Cooke details the various links and connections between the works, many written for groups that he knew. He also talks about his musical background and how, unlike many choral composers he has no background as a chorister and Oxbridge Collegiate singer. Much of the music on this disc was designed to be useful, to fill a role; something that music has been doing for for generations.

Phillip Cooke - picture credit Peter Jones
Phillip Cooke - picture credit Peter Jones
The Te Deum is perhaps not quite the work that the above discussion might lead you to expect, for a start it lasts nearly 10 minutes. And though Cooke has no chorister background, he has studied Howells, and his Te Deum uses a great deal of choral unison, which develops into solo voices against a choral background, with the organ quite discreet. Only towards the does the organ grow in importance. But where we leave Howells behind is in the actual melodic material which has a distinct whiff of James MacMillan in Gaelic mode.The Jubilate is rather shorter in the same sound-world, though the musical material has rather less sound of MacMillan.

Three Partsongs consists of I stood on a tower setting Tennyson, Green setting D H Lawrence, and How clear, how lovely setting A E Housman, the three being written at various times. There is a nice bitter-sweetness to the harmony in I stood on a tower, the melodic material is appealing and rather haunting, with homophonic, quite close harmony. In Green there is a lovely clarity to the contrapuntal wiring, and a beautiful shape to the setting of the text in the Housman.

The Glory of Zion is a short anthem setting Isaiah, commissioned by Oriel College, Oxford, written in 2010. The opening is big, bright and dramatic with vivid harmony, then quieter with an interesting interplay between voices before the opening material returns on the organ. Verbum caro factum est was written in 2009 (commissioned by Choir & Organ) and sets text from the Gospel of St. John. It is quietly intense piece, with rich harmony and an interesting use of quietness akin to pieces by John Tavener.

Chapel Choir of Selwyn College
Chapel Choir of Selwyn College
Cooke's Evening Service was written in 2009; like the Morning Service it is a substantial piece with a Magnificat of over 6 minutes, and Nunc dimittis over 4 minutes. The Magnificat opens with just a single line of sopranos, then two lines combining in material that is melodically appealing. Cooke builds the work gradually, next the men come in and finally the organ which creates some dramatic interaction. The result has an austere, calm feel. The Nunc dimittis opens with a baritone solo with an organ accompaniment so quiet it is hardly there, dialogue with the choir develops; the result has a lovely calm feel.

O Salutaris Hostia from 2008 is full of close rather spicy harmonies, and rather intense.

The final two pieces on the disc are the longest and least occasional. Invocation, written in 2010 for Queen's College Choir, sets Edward Thomas's poem Adlestrop. Cooke sets Thomas's poem with poignant, well-wrought harmony in highly effective polyphonic settings of Thomas's words, with rhapsodic interruptions from a solo trumpet; austere, calm and intense The whole is a wonderful evocation of a certain type of rhapsodic English melancholy, and evocation of the world that men like Thomas went off to fight for rather than a strict depiction of Thomas's words.

|The Hazel Wood was commissioned by JAM for their concert tour of Scotland in February 2013, the work uses choir, brass quintet and organ. It sets WB Yeat's poem The Song of Wandering Aengus. Careful of the balance problems that his chosen forces might give him, Cooke interleaves three different strands of music thus presenting us with the choir singing Yeats' words with commentary from organ and brass. The result is a highly effective piece, wonderfully well wrought. It sounds as though it lies well for the voices and deserves wider currency. As with Invocation, in his setting of Yeats's poetry Cooke eschews description for more general evocation, relying on the brass particularly to bring in excitement. I could imagine an edgier, more dramatic setting of Yeats words, but Cooke seems to fit nicely into the English mystical school.

Phillip Cooke has a personable and characterful musical voice and the pieces on this disc combine usefulness with character, and the final two give hints at what he is capable of when writing for a more extended form. The performances from Selwyn College, Onyx Brass and Timothy Parsons under conductor Sarah MacDonald are exemplary. The disc should certain encourage other choirs to explore Cooke's music.

Phillip Cooke - Morning Service (2011/12) [13.36]
Phillip Cooke - Three Partsongs [11.12]
Phillip Cooke -The Glory of Zion (2010) [3.36]
Phillip Cooke -Verbum caro factum est (2009) [6.16]
Phillip Cooke - Evening Service (2009) [10.40]
Phillip Cooke - O Salutaris Hostia (2008) [4.41]
Phillip Cooke -Invocation (2010) [10.40]
Phillip Cooke -The Hazel Wood (2012) [12.22]
Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge
Onyx Brass
Timothy Parsons (organ)
Sarah MacDonald (director)
Recorded 10-11 January 2013 in Selwyn College Chapel Cambridge

As a sample of Cooke's style, here is The Hazel Wood performed by the massed choirs of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities, with the Red Note Ensemble, Tom Wilkinson (organ), conducted by Michael Bawtree at St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen on 16 February 2013.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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