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Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Symphony No. 1 (1929) [34:18]
Symphony No. 2 in C major (1945) [32:01]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
rec. no information given. DDD
world premiere recording of Symphony No. 1
LYRITA SRCD.315 [65:19]


 

Early in 2006 I was studying the original manuscript of Jacob’s Symphony No. 1, attempting to gain some impression of the work and how it sounded. At the same time I reflected on the fact that, apart from a studio run-through by Sir Henry Wood in 1932, and a live performance of the slow movement under the composer’s baton at a Three Choirs concert in Gloucester in 1934, the work had received no other performances. Although I knew from Eric Wetherell’s biography of the composer that Jacob’s two numbered symphonies had been recorded by Lyrita in the mid-1990s. I resigned myself to the fact that these would probably never be released. Then came the exciting news in the summer of 2006 that a whole host of British music was to be made available on CD - some for the first time - including the two Jacob symphonies.

Thanks to the enterprising work of the conductor Douglas Bostock, the first of the British Symphonic Collection issued on the ClassicO label was a CD of three Jacob works, including a fine, taut performance of Symphony No. 2, so this work has been available for a decade or so. [review and purchase link]

In British Music Society News 80 (December 1998) Douglas Bostock wrote: "Jacob’s second symphony was an absolute revelation. I’d known his wonderful and always craftsmanlike music before but the second symphony shows a side of the composer which most people don’t know."

These comments are equally pertinent to the First Symphony. In these two major works - and why have they been so neglected for so long! - Jacob’s music reveals a dramatic robustness at times, rarely encountered with such ferocity in his other works. Here Jacob makes some powerful statements, inspired perhaps by the two world wars in his lifetime. Symphony No. 2 was written towards the end of WW2 and in the composer’s own words is "a meditation on war, suffering and victory." Even though the First Symphony dates some ten years after the end of WW1, it is still a war symphony because it is dedicated to Jacob’s brother Anstey, who fell at the Somme. Anstey was a favourite brother and Gordon Jacob, who saw action in the same conflict, was deeply affected by the loss. Maybe this emotion alone was behind the intensity of feelings of anguish, even anger perhaps, in the purple passages in both works.

Symphony No. 1, for large orchestra (with triple woodwind) opens with a rugged motif in fourths that leads to a perkier trumpet theme, both of which are developed with vigour. A contrasting second subject heard first on violas together with lighter, more playful passages on woodwind provide occasional relief from the general bustle. This is an expansive movement that makes a great impact and maybe it shares something of the "meditation on war…" that pervades the Second Symphony.

The main thrust of the dedication "…to my brother Anstey Jacob, killed on the Somme in 1916" almost certainly lies in the following movement (marked lento e mesto) because it is elegiac throughout, and towards the end is "in the style of a funeral march", in Jacob’s own words. It begins with a slow ostinato figure on pizzicato lower strings, timpani and harp and the main theme is heard above this, played quietly on trombones. The reflective mood is briefly disturbed by a sudden strike on a gong and a dramatic crescendo before the main theme returns. Altogether this movement is a moving tribute to the dedicatee.

One surmises that the Scherzo, so much lighter in vein, echoes happier family memories, and this movement is succeeded by a second slower movement, a beautifully tranquil and modal Larghetto and the second longest in the whole work. This is not the final movement, however, because this work is cast in five movements, unusual for a symphony, especially as Jacob generally adopted classical forms for his music. This movement is full of good tunes and is in ternary form.

And so to the lively (allegro con fuoco) fifth and final movement which begins in fugal style, though as a whole it is in the form of a rondo. The main theme is a sequence of four descending leaps of fifths, corresponding to violin tuning, as Eric Wetherell points out in the CD booklet. It is energetic and broadly optimistic in mood.

Let us turn to Symphony No. 2, which was dedicated to the Worshipful Company of Musicians to acknowledge the John Collard Fellowship which Jacob had held from 1943 to 1945. Having listened to the Bostock recording over the past decade, I have formulated my own interpretation of the work in terms of its war-based message. It is perfectly valid, in my view, to express the feelings and emotions that one experiences by listening to a particular musical work. As Gordon Jacob stated in a letter to me in 1958: "Among all the arts, music seems to make the most universal appeal because of its elusive magical character which enables it to mean one thing to one person & another to another quite rightly regardless of whether it meant either to the composer (or indeed anything to him apart from the weaving of webs of sound)."

The first movement begins with a sinister single long note that leads to a slow introduction followed by the brisker main theme on trumpet (cf. Symphony No 1!). Together with the energetic and vigorous musical ideas that come and go, this movement seems to depict the heat of battle, the tremendous efforts made by all at home and at the front to cope with the hostilities.

The second movement (adagio molto) begins with a cri de coeur from the strings and the music is full of anguish, epitomising the suffering of those involved. Towards the end, however, there is surely courage and optimism in the music.

The Scherzo with its busy passages on strings and woodwind and elegant theme on lower strings suggests that life must go on and one must remain optimistic, but sudden changes of mood in this movement, menacing in character, remind us that more sinister events are just around the corner. Composer Joseph Horovitz, one of Jacob’s students, told me recently that he attended a performance of this symphony in the late 1940s and that Jacob had told him to "…listen for the bomb!" The very last note of this movement is an orchestral "thump" quite clearly intended to represent this weapon of destruction, and there are perhaps a few smaller ones scattered about earlier.

The final movement is a ground, the repetitive motif seeming to represent the continuous, persistent and varied efforts of all involved in the struggle. Starting in the minor key it eventually blossoms into an exultant mood in the major key signifying victory and the work ends on a single continuous note as at the very beginning of the work, but this time with trills, no longer sinister but triumphant.

Barry Wordsworth and the LPO give sterling performances of both works, which do seem to have a certain affinity with each other and they are a most welcome addition to the catalogues. The orchestration is as brilliant as one would expect and there is a great clarity of texture, too, another Jacob characteristic. All the musical strands are distinct.

It is interesting to compare the Bostock and Wordsworth readings of the second symphony. The obvious differences are that Wordsworth takes the second movement a good deal slower than does Bostock, and the Scherzo a little faster. Overall, Wordsworth has a slightly more laid-back approach. The strings at the opening of the second movement produce a spine-chilling sound in Bostock’s version, not quite matched in Wordsworth’s. Nevertheless, the slower tempo is perfectly acceptable. Both conductors allow the emotions to emerge.

At last we have more examples of Jacob’s major works for orchestra. They will surely serve to re-establish his reputation after so much neglect in the later years of his life. Full marks to Lyrita for releasing this intriguing and important CD.

Dr Geoff Ogram

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