This CD is the second from Dutton featuring works exclusively
by Gordon Jacob. A few years ago they released a CD of chamber
music (mainly for oboe) played by Sarah Francis and other distinguished
musicians. It is about the eleventh or twelfth to be devoted
entirely to his music produced by record companies worldwide.
Its title is a little misleading because only the two concertos,
written over fifty years apart, and the Concert Piece fit the
description. The Three Pieces for Viola were written originally
with piano accompaniment but they have been orchestrated especially
for this recording, and tastefully too, by Graham Parlett. This
version is most effective, but - and this is an observation,
not a criticism - one is curious to learn why this particular
work was chosen, because there are many more viola pieces that
were penned by Gordon Jacob over his years as a composer. The
distinguished viola player and teacher John White, for whom
Jacob wrote several works including the Concert Piece, had a
long association with the composer and in his book “An Anthology
of British Viola Players” comments that: “…(Jacob’s) contribution
to the viola repertoire is second only to the works of Hindemith.”
The soloist, Helen Callus, was born in England but now resides
in the USA where she is Professor of Viola at the University
of California. She has gained a considerable reputation as a
violist and has been praised for her performances around the
review). The BBC Concert Orchestra, too, has a most distinguished
history and Stephen Bell, originally a horn player in that orchestra,
is now in great demand as a conductor. In the past he has recorded
a performance on CD of Jacob’s first Oboe Concerto with Ruth
Bolister as soloist (see
The 1925 Viola Concerto was Jacob’s first in this genre.
It uses full orchestra and is in one movement, though with three
distinct sections, the middle one ending with a cadenza. As
Lewis Foreman states in the CD booklet: ‘Jacob’s aim was to
exploit the dual nature of the viola, “rugged and virile” and
“gentle and singing”.
These characteristics are clearly present in this work. Though
Jacob’s music is generally described as neo-classical, this
concerto reveals a romantic side, though it is never over-sentimental
or cloying; that was not in his nature.
After two early performances in the 1920s and a 1970s broadcast
by Harry Danks, the work has been ignored until now when its
mixture of lyricism and grittiness can be once again displayed.
According to a comment on the Dutton website, those involved
in the recording wondered why it had been neglected for so long.
The Concert Piece (edited by John White) is essentially
another concerto but I suspect the reason that Gordon Jacob
did not call it so is because structurally it is a set of variations
on a theme. He used, for the most part, classical forms in his
music and to him, I guess, variations are not a concerto!
It is a most moving piece with some folk-like melodic influence
in parts and plenty of contrasts, with some powerful passages
for both soloist and orchestra. It is quite beautiful, melodious
and flows effortlessly without a break, apart from a brief general
pause, from beginning to end.
The first of the Three Pieces is a serene Elegy
which gives way to a tranquil Ostinato that becomes more intense,
with a delicately scored accompaniment of muted violins and
violas. The final piece, Scherzo, is in complete contrast,
very lively and strongly rhythmical overall.
I have a particular fondness for the Second Viola Concerto,
written as a test-piece at the suggestion of John White for
the first International Viola Competition. This was held in
the Isle of Man in 1980 to commemorate the artistry and achievements
of the world-famous violist Lionel Tertis who had died at the
age of 98 some five years earlier. The winner (19 year old American
Paul Neubauer) gave the first public performance with string
orchestra early in 1981 as part of his prize. This was in the
presence of the composer.
I attended that performance, which was recorded and broadcast
the following August. I remember recording the transmission
at the request of Gordon Jacob so that he could have a copy.
He wrote to me later to say that it was one of his favourite
In four movements, the concerto explores virtually every technique
that the instrument and soloist are capable of demonstrating.
The accompaniment is a true reflection of Jacob’s “refusing
to add a single note to his scores beyond the exact limits of
what he wishes to express”, as once commented by the music critic
Robin Hull. This work is a gem with a variety of mood. The calmness
of the first movement gives way to a buzzing scherzo, while
the short, intermezzo-like third movement ends with a haunting
duet between the viola and a solo cello in the orchestra – quite
magical. The lively and sometimes boisterous finale makes for
a fitting conclusion.
On this CD I thought I detected discrepancies between a couple
of played notes and what was in my score. The final movement
was a bit slower than the crotchet=116 given by the composer;
a touch faster would make it even more exhilarating. However,
these are minor criticisms.
The second “odd man out” is the Passacaglia Stereophonica
for orchestra, in which violas appear only in the orchestra's
string section. I believe that the original “filler” was to
have been the early tone poem The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,
not heard for years. I suppose at twelve minutes it was too
long, but the three minute Passacaglia is a fun substitute.
It shows off the sections of the orchestra and some individual
instruments and was composed especially for early experimental
stereo broadcasts. It was played in 1960 as a test transmission
in stereo, with one channel on TV and the other on radio, and
as a poor student I remember being able to hear only the latter
These viola works are most expressive and are, long overdue,
an important addition to the viola repertoire. At last, Gordon
Jacob’s music is being reassessed and valued for its quality.
The performances are excellent. Helen Callus plays with great
conviction and sensitivity and her interpretation of the music
is soundly based. She has a lovely lightness of touch when required
and can summon up great power and gravitas in the dramatic passages.
Stephen Bell and the BBC Concert Orchestra are worthy performers
too. The recording quality is first class with a wide dynamic
range that does justice to the music.
One has only to scan the catalogue of Dutton Epoch to realise
the great service this company has done for British music and
this latest release will surely be another feather in their
Dr Geoff Ogram