Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Chamber Music with Recorder
Suite for recorder and string quartet [19:22]
Sonatina for treble recorder and harpsichord [9:38]
Sonata for recorder and piano [13:24]
A Consort of Recorders [10:15]
Variations for treble recorder and piano [12:55]
Trifles, for treble recorder, violin. cello and harpsichord [9:07]
Annabel Knight (recorder)
Robin Bigwood (harpsichord and piano)
Maggini Quartet
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK 12, 25-26 January 2009. DDD.
NAXOS 8.572364 [74:41]

Following his father’s initiative in the revival of early music, Carl Dolmetsch was a pioneer in the twentieth century, promoting interest in the recorder as a “serious” musical instrument and gaining a reputation as a virtuoso from the 1930s onward. Four of the six pieces here were written and dedicated to Carl Dolmetsch. Later, the Danish player Michala Petri became one of the best-known exponents, and many other excellent recorder players have emerged as champions of the instrument.

Since the 1930s several composers have written works for the recorder and a sizeable repertoire of modern music has been created. The instrument is no longer confined to the music of earlier centuries, before it gave way to the transverse flute.

English composers like Edmund Rubbra, Lennox Berkeley and Antony Hopkins were amongst the first to provide attractive music for the recorder in the twentieth century. But the greatest number of works is surely attributable to Gordon Jacob, and it is his music alone that the English recorder player Annabel Knight has chosen for this CD. Her reason, as she states in the booklet notes, is to redress a balance, because proponents of the avant-garde recorder movement in Germany and The Netherlands in the 1960s neglected the late twentieth century English repertoire.

The six works by Jacob on this CD comprise almost his complete output of recorder music. The exception is the miniature Duettino written as an encore for Michala Petri. This requires the performer to play a tune while simultaneously singing a counter-melody!

Probably the best known piece is the substantial 1957 Suite for Recorder and Strings, here performed in its original form with string quartet. It is played beautifully by the soloist accompanied by the excellent Maggini Quartet. This seven movement work often appears in recitals with piano accompaniment (composer’s arrangement), and there is an earlier recording by Michala Petri with string orchestra. The piece works well in all arrangements, but the string quartet version has, I think, a particular charm.

From the gently flowing Prelude to the English Dance, Lament, Burlesca alla rumba, Pavane, Introduction and Cadenza and a final lively Tarantella, the listener encounters a wide range of moods. This is attractive, tuneful music, ideally suited to the instrument and played, as are all the works on this CD, with assuredness, precision and sensitivity.

The Sonatina for treble recorder and harpsichord (originally written for Michala Petri) is in similar vein with its four short movements of “easy on the ear” melodies. It was written in 1983, though the CD states 1985, the latter being the date of publication. The final movement, marked Allegro vivace, is reminiscent of the Tarantella of the Suite. Both of these final movements are usually played on the sopranino recorder (optional). Annabel Knight does so in the Tarantella but chooses to stay with the treble recorder in the last movement of the Sonatina.

There is perhaps a more serious tone overall in the longer Sonata for recorder and piano (1967). The music still appeals to the ear but there are moments when it has a certain edge, especially in the Scherzo with its percussive discords on piano. The work as a whole demonstrates that the recorder, despite its apparent gentility of tone, is quite capable of conveying strong emotions. In this work and the Sonatina, the keyboards are played with great verve by Robin Bigwood.

A Consort of Recorders (1972) is another piece composed for Carl Dolmetsch, this time for recorder quartet. It is also known as “A Jacobean Suite”, a punning title devised by Dolmetsch. It consists of six brief movements, beginning with Fanfare and March followed by Nocturne, a felicitous Panpipes, Bells (incorporating the Westminster chimes), a serene Chorale, and ending with a very short “throwaway” Adieu. Gordon Jacob would probably have described the piece as “unpretentious“, and it is exactly that, but witty and quite charming. The ensemble Fontanella play this with enthusiasm and capture the changing moods and moments of humour delightfully.

Jacob wrote a number of sets of variations, for strings, full orchestra, piano (three hands), all of which are worth pursuing, and his Variations for treble recorder and piano (1962) live up to his reputation of providing satisfying music of worth. The ten variations on a folk-like theme, which has been described elsewhere as having a Scottish flavour, are as varied as one could possibly imagine. The work has been recorded previously by Ross Winters on a British Music Society disc and in its booklet notes, Andrew Mayes (who provided the main notes for this current CD) points out that in the fourth variation there is an arpeggio accompaniment based upon the open-string intervals of the treble viol, reminding the listener of the Dolmetsch family’s connection with early music. The fifth variation is for piano alone, written for Carl Dolmetsch’s associate Joseph Saxby who usually played the accompaniment of the whole work on the harpsichord.

The final piece Trifles, for treble recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord was written, according to my information in 1982 (the score is dated Jan 1st 1983) but the date given on the CD sleeve is 1971. The title is, one supposes, an English interpretation of Bagatelles. With typical wit, Jacob has given the four movements punning names: Le Buffet, La Trifle au vin de Jerez, La Trifle à l’ananas, and La Trifle à l’anglaise. The second movement surely has a whiff of Spain, the third is pineapple sweet, while the final movement is based upon an English folksong, The Keys of Canterbury. The slow movements have that wistfulness so characteristic of Jacob’s music, while the allegros are invigorating and tend to get the feet tapping.

This CD is a fine tribute to the composer. His music has been interpreted with first-class performances; one sometimes finds that Jacob’s slow movements are not given enough weight, but here they are treated most sensitively. And the livelier passages and movements receive the full treatment, resulting in great bursts of energy - most exhilarating. Jacob’s music ideally suits the instrument as one would expect, and it has great clarity of texture. Annabel Knight, in her own comments in the CD booklet, refers to his musical language as “often sparse, desolate and disturbed” and links this to the personal tragedies in Jacob’s life, notably his experiences in World War 1 in which he lost a favourite brother. Although there is much jollity in the music on this CD, the serious and reflective side of his work is clearly apparent. It is never over-stated; it is handled with restraint.

The recording quality is first-rate with an excellent balance between soloist and accompaniment. The recorder is never swamped by the other instruments. All credit must go to Robin Bigwood who was the recording engineer as well as the keyboard player.

The Suite (in this version with string quartet), the Sonata and Trifles all appear as world premiere recordings.

It is good to see yet another CD devoted entirely to Jacob’s music, especially when the performances are so sparkling. It deserves to be successful.

Dr Geoff Ogram

A fine tribute to the composer. Sparkling performances.