I’ve not been able to find much out about James Cook aside from what is in the liner notes for this release. He has three other discs worth of material, all on Divine Art/Diversions, two of which feature choral works. The most recently released before this disc is a collection of organ music. Regarding this disc, I was intrigued by the harp/organ combination, which isn’t heard often. I don’t have such a duo in my collection and thought I’d give this a try. Once I got the CD, the names of the movements for the Organ Symphony of 2005 had me clutching for the liner-notes and various online dictionaries.
The piece follows a sort of programme, beginning with Tripudium, a liturgical dance step of three forward steps followed by one backwards step, which the piece replicates in its chord progression. Liner-notes by the composer indicate that this work “began as an attempt to fuse music for organ and for harp in a convincing and effective way”, but over its course, the two instruments play together but rarely, even in the two movements of the six where they play antiphonally as much as they play simultaneously.
Following the Tripudium is the Prolegomenon, or “preliminary discussion introducing a work of considerable length or complexity” for harp alone, which is a rather pleasant movement, though I found it interesting that the introduction to the piece formed the second movement of the symphony. This is followed by the for-organ-only Noyade, the definition of which I learned in research is a “drowning of many persons at once” which was an innovation developed by Jean-Baptiste Carrier in France at Nantes during the Reign of Terror. How interesting that someone named after John the Baptist would come up with such a thing. The piece begins forcefully and dissonantly but quietens down with sections using the right-hand for a narrative line as the left and pedal provide chordal support. It is during this movement especially that the unappealing sound of the organ at Girton College Chapel makes itself most apparent. The movement switches between the first motivic statement to the more quiet second with not much development or variation, giving somewhat of a similarity between this piece and the sometimes uninspired organ accompaniment to silent films, with the changing of motivic material dictated not by musical need, but by the cuts to different characters.
The harp takes the helm with Trisagion, which is found to be the term for an abbreviated memorial service. The piece serves as a bit of sunshine before we plunge into the never-ending Empyreum, which continues what we’ve heard for quite some time with the organ part, the right hand playing the narrative, with simple chordal support in the left hand and pedal. The piece varies little in this style, which gets to be a bit wearisome over the 37-minute playing time. Much of it strikes me as sounding more like pre-service music than anything else, and little comes to light as the piece ends, with rather clichéd harp arpeggios sweeping things up to the clouds.
To a somewhat lesser extent, this same uniformity plagues the Trilogy for organ and harp, written over the course of eleven months between April 2004 and March 2005. The harp and organ work more as an ensemble here, but little comes of the material. The piece tends to fall back into the “harp or organ” rut and the chord progressions lack surprise or interest.
Cook fares better on his smaller-scale works, three of which are on the disc. The two songs are appealing and ably performed by Tacye Phillipson and Jennifer Clark. Voces Oxonienses, an amateur student choir, are sensitive and engaging in their performance of the short choral work, In Heaven Shall All be Love.
Overall, the performances are good, and the songs are enjoyable, but the larger pieces have little variety in approach or writing style. This, and the occasionally irritating sound of the organ both count against a recommendation.