Home » Viewpoint: Max Cooke, Team of Pianists and The Sorrows of Young Werther

Viewpoint: Max Cooke, Team of Pianists and The Sorrows of Young Werther

by Julie McErlain

This recital was dedicated to the memory of Max Cooke OAM (1924 – 2021) Musician, educator, founder of Team of Pianists, and mentor to generations of musicians.

Through our unprecedented COVID lockdown year 2020, many pianists at home were playing familiar and comforting works learnt as a student. I too unearthed favourites from University days, playing through pieces studied with Max Cooke and Roy Shepherd, and reading their pencilled notes and advice on these old scores with a sense of nostalgia and gratitude for their wisdom.

Max Cooke passed on to all of us his valuable published works, and his notes on Baroque ornaments for the keyboard, in particular, have always lived within arm’s reach of my piano stool. Still today, I observe the numbers Max had clearly written in pencil above every ornament instructing exactly how many notes to play – annotations that continue to hold a sentimental connection between teacher and student. iPads and tablets won’t deliver that same historical record will they? It was 1972, and we would discuss German transport systems, Max’s advisory work in promoting both the establishment of the Victorian College of the Arts and the first music therapy courses, where to purchase a harpsichord one day and did anyone know or teach Baroque dances.

But it is the Team of Pianists whose development since 1983 marks the practical, creative and lasting legacy of Max Cooke as the founder, consultant and performer for this inspiring project. Having performed chamber music recitals in Melbourne’s fine National Trust buildings, the Team now are Artists-in-Residence for the Trust in an historic music salon at Glenfern, East St Kilda. Team partner Darryl Coote  introduced today’s concert – “The Sorrows of Young Werther” – the third event sponsored at Glenfern by the 2021 Rigg Bequest Classic Music. In the beautiful autumn colours of russet and gold, the setting was perfect for the performance of two magnificent, absorbing and engaging Piano Quartets.

A peer of Debussy and admired by Saint-Saens, French composer Melanie (Mel) Bonis (1858 – 1937) composed over 300 works, yet her complex and dynamic Quartet in B-flat-major is rarely performed. What a joy it was to experience this substantial four movement work, its surging and uplifting Romantic melodies balanced with contrasting challenging harmonic relationships and chromatic textures.

Balancing the program was the equally intriguing and mountainous Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C-minor, Opus 60.  Often referred to as the Werther Quartet after Goethe’s Sorrows of the Young Werther, an intense story of unrequited love, this deeply moving and powerful four-movement work has inspired music analyst Peter H. Smith to produce a seven chapter book, Expressive Forms in Brahms’ Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in his Werther Quartet. That would be a hard act for any writer to follow.

Both Quartets were performed flawlessly and passionately by four highly experienced and skilled musicians: Elizabeth Sellars (violin), Caroline Henbest (viola), Molly Kadarauch (cello) and Rohan Murray (piano). Both quartets demand rich sweeping orchestral Romantic melodies, lush textures and surprisingly distinctive chromatic motives. Both quartets enriched us with late 19th century passion as well as fine individual solos, with emotive and colourful passages of intense and surprisingly inventive harmonic progressions. This was a beautifully balanced ensemble, with each soloist showing exemplary skills and musicianship. Strings were blended tonally as one, the quartet well-balanced in changing colours and varied orchestrations, and the atmosphere warmly enhanced by the intimate historic surrounds.

How enjoyable was the playing, the rich and rewarding repertoire, the sentiment, and this grand musical tribute.

Photo supplied.


Julie McErlain reviewed “Sorrows of Young Werther”, performed by Elizabeth Sellars (violin), Caroline Henbest (viola), Molly Kadarauch (cello) and Rohan Murray (piano) as part of the Team of Pianists series, and live-streamed from Glenfern, East St Kilda on May 16, 2021.

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