Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Complete Music for Viola and Orchestra
Viola Concerto No. 1 in C minor (1925 rev. 1976)
Concert Piece for Viola and Orchestra Edited by John White (1977)
Three Pieces for Viola and Orchestra Orchestrated by Graham Parlett (1930 orch. 2010)
Viola Concerto No. 2 (with string orchestra) (1979)
Passacaglia Stereophonica (1960)
Helen Callus (viola)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Stephen Bell
rec.: St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 13-15 July 2010. DDD
world premiere recording

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 world (see 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 review).

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 pieces.

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 channel!

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 cap.

Dr Geoff Ogram

Another feather in the Dutton cap.