My first experience of the music of James Cook (his age is not given and the booklet photograph could be of just about any young man aged between 13 and 30 who is not ashamed to be seen in a pure white suit) came with some religious choral pieces which left me, frankly, uninspired. Here, with somewhat more expanded forces, once can begin to detect a little more of what he is attempting to achieve. Apparently the move to instrumental music is a relatively recent phenomenon, the booklet telling us that ‘he has during 2005 written a sizeable body of work for the organ as well as several pieces for the rarely heard combination of organ and harp.’
Certainly organ and harp is a rare combination. Sometime in the mid-1970s I was involved in a performance of a Concerto for organ and harp by a fellow-student called Stuart Nettleship. He had addressed the problem of balance between organ and harp with notable success and I was only sorry that the work seemed to die a death after I had got my hands on it. But it is, potentially, a very attractive combination and one which opens up, I would have thought, considerable opportunities for an imaginative composer with a religious bent. In the major organ and harp work here, however, Cook side-steps the problems of balance by largely avoiding any direct contact between the two instruments. The Symphony for Organ and Harp comes across as a suite of five unconnected pieces, some for organ, some for harp, and only with the first actually placing the two side by side (Cook does use the harp in the final movement too, originally scored for organ solo, but it remains very much detached from the main musical substance). He describes this as a ‘programme symphony both theologically and theatrically’, but that programme is not apparent to this listener, What is apparent, however, is a sincerity of expression and a real desire to communicate.
Such characteristics inform the short pieces on the disc, with the Trilogy – a piece which attempts to bring the organ and harp into closer contact but in so doing reduces the musical language to its most naïve – having a very direct, almost blatant appeal. Voces Oxonienses offer a nicely moulded performance of the richly textured In heaven shall all be love, while Augusta Hebberd and Jennifer Clark each give captivating accounts of two short sun-drenched songs. Altogether, however, while much of this music inhabits the world of fairly forgettable ‘easy listening’, these uniformly unaffected performances and the sense of sincerity which permeates the disc (marred only be the utterly unlovely sound of the organ in Girton College Chapel, Cambridge), will prove both comforting and enjoyable to many.