Last year I welcomed, Heaven’s Happiness, an earlier disc of choral music by James Cook. Now along comes a second CD from the same source, recorded in the same location and featuring the same expert group of singers. There has been one important change, however, in that Rufus Frowde, who played the organ on the previous disc, now directs the choir. I note, by the way, from the booklet that Voces Oxonienses, which is made up of professional singers, has been formed specifically to record Cook’s music.
The previous disc was devoted to settings of words by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan writers, such as John Bunyan and these authors provide the texts for the works in this present programme also. This means that the pieces are full of rich, powerful imagery and that there is a focus on suffering, death and the hoped-for rewards of the afterlife. As Cook sets his texts with sensitivity this makes for some stimulating music, though on one or two occasions I did find myself thinking that it would be interesting to hear him addressing different themes or, perhaps, writing in a different genre.
James Cook is evidently quite a prolific composer. It will be noted that all but one of the seventeen pieces here recorded were written during a period of five years. However, more to the point, with the exception of three pieces that, as I’ll mention below, are movements from larger works, the remainder all come from collections of Cook’s vocal pieces, some of them evidently quite extensive.
Most of the music on this CD, as on the last one, is for unaccompanied voices. Indeed, in his note accompanying the previous CD Cook commented that organ accompaniment is a rarity in his work. In some ways I think that’s rather a pity. He writes well and resourcefully for unaccompanied voices but in the three pieces here which have an organ accompaniment the instrument adds a significant additional dimension and a variety of texture and colour that, frankly, is rather welcome.
The earlier disc included two of the three movements of Cook’s Triptych (2002). I felt at the time that it was a pity that the final movement had not been recorded. Well, here it is. Christ’s blood is heaven’s key is a powerful piece in which the intermittent organ accompaniment, in the composer’s words, “adds much to the drama and gravitas of the music.” Triptych seems to me to be a strong and eloquent work and it’s good to have it complete, though it’s a slight inconvenience to have it split across two CDs.
The organ is employed to even more telling effect in Beyond the movable heavens. This and the preceding item, which gives the CD its title, are from a larger work, Diptych (2003) – again, one wonders why the complete work was not recorded. In Beyond the movable heavens the organ provides an accompaniment in which alternating triads play an important role. However, the ear is caught particularly by some impressive passages of dark, cavernous pedal notes, which are superbly reported by the engineers and which add a thrilling element to the scoring.
For the rest we hear unaccompanied voices and here it’s appropriate to say that the singing by Voces Oxonienses is consistently of a very high quality indeed. Among the pieces that I particularly enjoyed was The lap of eternity, a lovely lilting setting, which is mainly a dialogue between soprano and bass soloists against a gentle background of choral harmonies, to the word “heaven” (I think.) Another success is All loves excelling, a lovely chorale-like piece. The words are emotionally rich and Cook enhances them with beautiful, affirmative music.
I was also impressed by Run sweet babe, which takes a text by John Bunyan. This is a short, disarmingly simple setting. We shall meet in comfort at our journey’s end addresses the theme of souls meeting “lovingly in heaven.” It is, as Cook says, an optimistic text and the music has a suitably light tread.
There is, indeed, much to admire and enjoy in this collection of pieces and in the exemplary performances that they receive. I suggest, however, that this is a disc for dipping into rather than listening to the whole programme at once. The sound is very good and James Cook himself provides useful notes about both the music and the texts he has chosen and the background to them. In his review of this disc Rob Barnett summed up the music very succinctly and accurately in commenting that Cook “works within traditional tonal boundaries; knowingly or unwittingly acknowledging links with the British choral tradition.” Anyone with an interest in that tradition can safely and confidently explore this rewarding CD.