James Cook is a young composer (his date of birth is not given and I have been unable to discover it but from his photo in the booklet I’d say he’s probably aged around 30.) He studied composition at Oxford University and after a brief spell working at Eton College has specialised in writing church music for choirs. The music here recorded is all of pretty recent vintage. (Though the date of composition of Vespers is not specified I think it’s reasonable to assume that it’s roughly contemporaneous with the other pieces.)
There’s an interesting and rather unusual thread running through the programme in that all the music sets texts dating from the period between the 16 th and 18 th centuries and taken from theological works written by authors who belonged to the religious group known as the Puritans. Some of the words are from original Puritan writings while the rest, drawn from the scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer, would have been very familiar to them. In fact, James Cook, who provides the liner notes, devotes at least as much space to setting out the historical background as he does to describing his own music. In this review I shall draw quite freely on his notes to discuss the music.
The opening and closing items in the recital come from larger works. The first of these, Triptych, “explores the idea of female self-sacrifice” the composer tells us. The extracts included here are the only items with accompaniment and, indeed, Cook comments that organ accompaniment is a rarity in his work. This is a bit surprising in a composer whose focus is so much on liturgical choral music but he obviously finds the a cappella medium one in which he is very comfortable. I can only imagine that there was some practical constraint that prevented a complete recording of Triptych since on the face of it there would have been sufficient room on the CD. The music is clearly very deeply felt (as is everything on the disc) and is well written for the forces involved. However, for some reason that I can’t easily articulate these extracts did not appeal to me as much as did the remainder of the programme.
The concluding two tracks are extracts from Cook’s Gradualia. The very title suggests homage to William Byrd but Cook doesn’t comment on this in his notes. (The notes are good but I would have welcomed just a little more information of this nature to understand the context in which the works were written.) The first extract, “There is no wrinkle on the brow of eternity” consists of just two lines of text. One line is the title of the piece and is sung exclusively by the (unnamed but good) soprano and tenor soloists. The other line, “In heaven is no war-fare, but all well-fare”, is sung as a harmonised ostinato in the background by the choir. The whole is mightily effective. In terms of intensity the piece is a kind of arch, beginning quietly and rising to a central climax before subsiding back to stillness.
This piece illustrates, I think, a central point about James Cook’s music. It is pleasing to listen to on a superficial level. However, beneath the surface there’s much going on and the music is technically very clever. His harmonic language is resolutely tonal, though the harmonies are often original and unexpected. Thus, in “There is no wrinkle on the brow of eternity” the soloists sing a melodic palindrome in 3 / 4 time while the choir’s ostinato is in 4 / 4 time. (All this information comes from the composer’s notes; I haven’t seen any scores.) Of course, the listener does not need to be aware of this to enjoy the music. However, the description suggests that Cook’s music is far from easy. It’s a tribute to the singers here that they make it sound easy.
The CD contains two complete works. Vespers is a sequence of eight pieces. The title is a clever one for the texts are either traditionally associated with evening (Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis), the funeral service (Psalm 23, The Lord’s Prayer) or employ metaphors for the evening of human life. I imagine the pieces are designed to be sung as a sequence because neither the Magnificat nor the Nunc Dimittis concludes with a doxology, as would be normal in liturgical use, yet after last piece, the setting of “The Lord is my Shepherd,” there is a doxology. I was impressed with this work. The music is beautiful and evocative and it complements the texts excellently. The settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (especially the latter) are fine ones but the lack of a doxology would prevent their use as separate liturgical pieces. I wonder if it would be possible for Cook to add doxologies for if so I’m sure the pieces would be welcome additions to the Evensong repertory. The settings of The Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 are also very effective. The fifth movement, “Sarabande” (the dance of death, Cook reminds us) is the most complex musically, involving two antiphonal SATB choirs. It sounds to me a most accomplished piece of writing.
Hymnus Divinus is another impressive achievement. It is a series of seven pieces that, in the composer’s words, aims “to capture the nature of, and portray the mystical journey to, the heavenly realm.” The first movement is a short and deceptively simple chorale-like piece. Cook describes the music as “meditative” and some unexpected harmonies give the music an otherworldly feel, I think. Other movements include a cleverly worked fughetta and, in the third section, an example of more extended chordal writing. I was impressed by the fourth movement, “He whose name is Love”, an expansive choral song, which contains the music that is perhaps melodically the strongest. The final section, “Lead me in the way to Heaven”, is very effective and eloquent. At its close Cook reverts to the chorale style of writing with which the whole work began, thus bringing it full circle in a satisfying way.
On the evidence of this disc James Cook writes sincere, accomplished and assured music. He is obviously inspired by his chosen texts and he responds imaginatively to the rich language and powerful images contained in these Puritan writings. By sheer coincidence I finished off this review on the morning of Good Friday and that seems to me to be highly apposite given the nature of these pieces. Cook ably builds on and renews the traditions of the music that has been written for the English Church in the last few centuries and that in itself is a cause for celebration.
It is hard to imagine that his music could have been better served than by the expert singers who constitute Voces Oxoniensis. They are directed by Michael McCarthy in flawless performances. Tuning, ensemble and diction are all excellent and the engineers have recorded them clearly. The documentation is good and includes full English texts. I had not encountered the music of James Cook before but I hope to hear more of it in the future. I hope that this enterprising release will bring his music to a wider audience and will encourage other choirs to take it up – though they’ll have to be good! Strongly recommended.
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