Arnold Cooke String Quartets Show Influences

This release presents three of the five string quartets written by Arnold Cooke.

Cooke was a British composer of some renown. He played the piano and the cello and began composing around the age of seven. At Cambridge, he played cello in a string quartet. His talent merited additional study under Paul Hindemith in Berlin. 

Hindemith, a violist, was also a string quartet player. With a strong quartet background in both teacher and pupil, it’s surprising  Cooke didn’t compose more of them. His first quartet wasn’t written until after Cooke returned to Britain in 1933. 

The work shows the influence of Hindemith. It’s contrapuntal and complex. It isn’t atonal, but the harmonies are quite dissonant and the music is heavily chromatic. To my ears, it borders on the academic. And yet there’s a hint of lyricism there that kept my interest. 

Cooke’s third quartet was finished in 1967. Cooke continued to explore the principles laid down by Hindemith. But he took them in a different direction. This quartet still has plenty of dissonant harmonies and complex counterpoint. But there seems to be a stronger organization underlying it all. The dissonances constantly point toward resolution. And that gives the work a sense of forward motion. 

The 1978 String Quartet No. 5 is a finely crafted miniature. It’s cast in a single movement. And every note performs double- and sometimes triple-duty. The dissonances are less intense, and convey an even stronger sense of direction. 

The Bridge Quartet turns in some fine readings of these pieces. Motifs are often handed from one instrument to another, and the hand-off has to be precise. The quartet’s interpretations help guide the listener through the music. There’s never any doubt about what the ear should focus on. 

These are interesting quartets, and I’m glad I heard them. With the first and the fifth quartets, we hear the start and finish of Cooke’s journey. I’d like to hear the second and fourth quartets to understand how they relate to the others. 

 Arnold Cooke: Complete String Quartets, Volume One.
String Quartets Nos. 1, 3, and 5
The Bridge Quartet
Toccata Classics TOCC 0696

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