Divine Art have already released two good CDs of choral music by James Cook, both of which came my way for review:-

Both of these discs contained music that was largely, if not entirely, inspired by the writings of the seventeenth-century English Puritans. In reviewing the second of these, a collection entitled The Way to Heaven I commented that it would be interesting to hear Cook addressing different themes or, perhaps, writing in a different genre. Thus I was pleased to receive a CD devoted to his organ music, especially since I’d found Cook’s occasional organ accompaniments enhanced the (mainly unaccompanied) choral pieces I’d heard.

However, the disc has not quite fulfilled my hopes. Technically the music is assured and it seems to be very well played by Myles Hartley. My colleague Chris Bragg commented that the music “never seems in a hurry to get anywhere and in general I missed a certain amount of direction or purpose.” I can only concur.

There’s an example of what I suspect Chris may have had in mind fairly early on in the recital. The Organ Symphony consists of four movements. In his useful notes James Cook describes the third movement as “the lightest and shortest” in the work. Since this is a symphony, perhaps naively, I’d expected something along the lines of a scherzo. The movement is indeed the briefest and it’s true to say that it’s lighter than its companions in terms of textures. But the one thing it’s not is fast. Indeed, something of a sameness of tempo seems to pervade the whole work. Some passages are impressive and there’s dynamic contrast but I’m afraid I detected little rhythmic vitality or variety throughout the whole work.

In fact, I think it’s a failing of the music that there’s little in the whole programme that truly surprises the listener. By that I’m not advocating cheap sensation or effect for the sake of effect. However, just to take at random two very different masters of organ composition, Bach and Messiaen: when I listen to their music I often find myself thinking, as it were, “what’s he going to do next?” There’s little of that here, though the arresting opening of ‘In Heaven’, the finale of the Organ Suite, is a pleasing exception.

There are some livelier passages. The aforementioned ‘In Heaven’ is one such and the first of the Two Voluntaries is strong and vigorous. For the most part, however, slow music and a mood of introspection prevails. In general I’m afraid I didn’t find the contents of this CD especially memorable. I wonder if part of the trouble is that all the pieces were composed in the space of just one year, 2004. This may have militated against variety. Certainly I don’t feel that we hear much evidence of stylistic development.

The writings of the Puritans once again provide the inspiration for much of the music contained here. I can appreciate that this is an extremely strong facet of James Cook’s musical makeup. However, from what I’ve read about his music in the notes accompanying the three CDs I’ve heard, I do wonder if he’s not over-concerned with the stimulus of this literature. With the greatest possible respect, I’d suggest that if he’s to develop as a composer, he needs to be open to more influences and to explore the possibilities of writing in other musical genres. Of course, it may be that there’s a good deal of other very different music by James Cook that’s as yet unrecorded. If that’s the case I hope that a way may be found to get some of this onto CD so that a more rounded portrait of the composer can emerge.

I’ve indicated already that Myles Hartley plays the music very well. The organ sounds good. I’m not sure how large a building the chapel of Harris Manchester College may be. I didn’t feel that the sound was unduly constrained but once or twice I wondered if the music might have made a stronger impression on a bigger, more resourceful instrument in a slightly larger acoustic. The documentation is comprehensive and good. It includes a full specification of the organ.

This is a worthy disc and admirers of James Cook’s music will want to hear it. For myself, I’m a bit disappointed not to have heard more evidence of a truly individual compositional voice.

—John Quinn