Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Symphony No 1 (1929) [34:18]
Symphony No 2 in C (1945) [32:01]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
recording data not given
LYRITA SRCD.315 [66:25]
Like the other twentieth-century British symphonists I've been surveying Gordon Jacob relies on short motifs susceptible to development, within a conservative (tonal) harmonic framework, and knows how to use orchestral color for expressive purposes. He draws from a slightly different well of musical gestures, however, to "speak" in a voice distinctly his own.
The first thing you notice is that the orchestral textures are unusually clean. It's as if the composer started with a very clear idea of the type of sonority he wanted, and, without a wasted note, precisely and efficiently deploys the available orchestral resources to build it - rather as Mahler did, although the actual result is quite different. In the turbulent tuttis of the symphonies' outer movements, the uncluttered sound avoids, for example, Edmund Rubbra's unwieldy busy-ness in comparable passages, and lends the lyric themes an almost Classical austerity and restraint.
In other respects, too, Jacob stands above some of his better-known compatriots. His concise structures avoid William Alwyn's occasional discursiveness, and his themes are more strongly profiled than those by Arnold Bax.
In the five-movement First Symphony, billed as a world premiere recording, the first two movements sound more cosmopolitan than distinctly "English". The clean outlines of the opening movement almost suggest an ear-friendly Neoclassicism; if you'd told me that it was a little-known work by, say, Walter Piston, I'd eventually have believed you. The second movement, Lento e mesto, is sad and solemn - corresponding to my own notion of "mesto" - with a touch of formality. It's in the third movement, a scherzo that starts out perky and gradually turns ominous, that the composer begins veering towards the language and aesthetic of his compatriots. This continues through the tripartite, vaguely modal Larghetto and the energetic rondo finale.
The Second Symphony's slow, searching introduction sounds vaguely American, hinting at Copland's wide-open spaces and Bernstein's yearning fourths. The main Allegro molto is buoyant and exuberant, its irregular scansion spicing up the basic triple time, with the second subject resuming the questing pose. The prayerful Adagio molto, harmonically unsettled, gradually builds to a full-throated outpouring before settling back. Jacob perhaps miscalculates with his bubbling, volatile Scherzo, which ends so emphatically that one is surprised to hear the finale begin! That finale, an extended Ground, nonetheless skilfully weaves its varied colours and harmonies into a satisfying whole.
My previous encounter with Barry Wordsworth - a slapdash Scheherazade in Tring's "Royal Philharmonic Collection" - was unpromising, so I'm pleased to report that he does a nice job with these two symphonies. The low brass can get heavy in their melodic phrases in the Second Symphony, where ensemble sounds marginally less secure than in the rock-solid First, but overall the LPO plays handsomely and with commitment. The recording - an original digital production, unlike some other Lyrita releases - is vivid and colourful, with rich, deep brass reproduction.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
See also reviews by John Quinn, Geoff Ogram, Rob Barnett and extended Jacob article by Geoff Ogram
Played handsomely and with commitment in sound that is vivid and colourful, with rich, deep brass reproduction.