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CD Review

Gordon Jacob

Chamber Music with Recorder

  • Suite for Recorder & Strings *
  • Sonatina for Recorder & Harpsichord
  • Sonata for Recorder & Piano
  • A Consort of Recorders **
  • Variations for Recorder & Piano
  • Trifles, for Treble Recorder, Violin, Cello & Harpsichord
Annabel Knight, recorder
David Angel, violin
Michal Kaznowski, cello
Robin Bigwood, harpsichord & piano
* Maggini String Quartet
** Fontanella
Naxos 8.572364
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This is a CD that demonstrates just how different the world of Gordon Jacob (who was born in 1895) was from that of composers writing today – even as little as 25 years after his death, in 1984. Jacob's teachers included Stanford and Howells; his pupils Malcolm Arnold, Imogen Holst and Antony Hopkins. What you'll hear on this CD is music that's both highly suited to the instruments which he chose to write; or was commissioned – by Carl Dolmetsch – in the case of the Suite for Recorder and Strings. It's all music which is melodic, aggressively tonal, at times chromatic. Its musical sensibility is very aware of the styles and genres of earlier British music. And indeed of the instruments on which much of it was played… harpsichord, recorder in particular.

But these are not innocuous or "folksy" compositions that run on the spot. Although mostly short in duration (no single movement lasts more than four and a half minutes; no piece more than twenty), there is much of substance and much to delight on a CD which contains two world premières recordings (the Sonata for Recorder and Piano, though written in 1967; and the Trifles, in 1971) and a world première arrangement (the Suite's, for string quartet, 1957). It's a tribute to Jacob's inventiveness that these performances sound so fresh and full.

It's also a tribute to the Maggini String Quartet, the five-person all-recorder ensemble Fontanella, Robin Bigwood (harpsichord, piano), and Annabel Knight. Her playing is very "present", closely recorded and not afraid to be as transparent as intimate woodwind at times requires… she exposes breaths, phrasing and a command of rhythm that are the result, it seems at times, of thinking on the spot; but without hesitation. For she's following the composer's ideas as they emerge. This makes her playing sound spontaneous and vibrant. This is nowhere more true than in the (scherzo and largo of the) Sonata for Recorder and Piano [tr.s 13, 14]. The latter movement, incidentally, introduces more chromaticism and tonal adventurousness than elsewhere in the selection of Jacob's music on this CD. This re-inforces Jacob's claim, if not to out and out "modernity", to a currency with the extent to which purely musical developments can and do express the concerns that many British composers felt in the last century with the pastoral, the historic and the rich cultural quilt under which they could either take cover, or to which they added new and colorful patches. By choosing the sonorities of these instruments, and in particular by honoring the beauty of their combinations, Jacob kept at least his head and perhaps one limb visible beneath that patchwork.

That, if anything, is the essence of this CD: that this composer largely of symphonic and chamber music nevertheless explored new textures and slightly provocative juxtapositions; yet used in familiar genres with which to do so. The Consort of Recorders, for instance, is not a pastiche, for all it draws on earlier recorder styles and is built on movements whose thrust is the pageantry and musical life of many centuries earlier. Nor is this (type of) composition an update or arrangement of former successes, as practiced by Britten or Warlock, say. There is a note of stimulus, aggression almost, that obliges us to take notice and read Jacob's intentions for what they are. The melodic intervals repeated again and again in the same work's "Nocturne" [tr. 17], for example, are not cuckoos or "lonesome maids". They are simple yet effective musical ideas in their own right, speaking straight from the twentieth century.

This music owes a great deal to Dolmetsch, who became a friend of Jacob as a result of the former's requests, commissions and performances. Knight could have stood in his shadow. Yet her playing is penetrating, sharp and resonant in ways in which that of the former was not. It has an urgency and eagerness to communicate which are well supported by the Magginis and Bigwood. Indeed, it's obvious that they enjoyed making this recording and exploring the works they play. It's also to be noted that it was Danish recorder virtuoso Michala Petri for whom the "Suite" was originally written and who has her own recording of this piece on Philips 476164-2.

The music on this CD works as well as it does because its performers have taken to heart Jacob's implicit exhortation to treat the recorder as "just another instrument" and not a curiosity. That's how they play from first to last. No fragility, no romantic wrapping, no sideways approach to its now perhaps somewhat unfashionable sound. There are no other recordings of the works currently available; it's good to see a CD devoted entirely to this composer, who's somewhat difficult to program and anthologize for the reasons stated. And, to repeat, the playing of all those involved is first rate – expressive, technically accomplished and persuasive of the value of Jacob's contribution to music in every way.

The acoustic and recording are excellent; the balance perfect; and the atmosphere created – if perhaps a tiny bit claustrophobic – conducive to our full concentration on the music. The liner notes are full and helpful. All in all a CD to be taken seriously and used as an enticing example of Jacob's output. Or enjoyed just if such repertoire, period or type of music as this attracts you. If you're enthusiastic about Jacob, of course, it's a must.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.