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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]


Over the years I’ve heard quite a bit of Gordon Jacob’s music but when I acquired the première recording of his Second symphony, made by Douglas Bostock in 1997, the seriousness and fine rhetoric of the music came as a surprise to me. Had I had the opportunity of previously hearing the First symphony I might have been better prepared for the Second. As it is, I’m not sure if the First symphony has ever been performed complete in public – Sir Henry Wood led a studio play-through in 1932. This present performance is certainly its first recording. I was intrigued to read in the informative notes by Jacob’s biographer, Eric Wetherell, that Jacob conducted the second movement of the symphony in a concert at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1934. I knew that he’d conducted Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony at the same festival and so I presume that Jacob’s own music was played in the same concert. What a shame that the full work wasn’t given.

The First symphony was composed in 1929. We’ve had to wait nearly eight decades to hear it in full but this Lyrita recording makes handsome amends. It is dedicated to the memory of Jacob’s brother, who was killed in action in the First World War; Jacob himself served in the conflict and became a prisoner of war. As one might expect, knowing that background, the symphony is strong in character rather than sunny.

Much of the first movement is bustling, including some pretty emphatic passages, but there are several more relaxed stretches of music, which provide sufficient contrast. Though this was, I believe, Jacob’s first foray into writing an extensive piece for full orchestra the scoring sounds pretty assured to me. The second movement – the piece aired in Gloucester – opens with a sombre processional. As Eric Wetherell says, this is reminiscent of Holst – though I’m not sure I entirely agree with his verdict that the movement is "bleak". To be sure, it’s an elegy and this is where one feels that Jacob’s sense of loss at his brother’s death is given fullest expression. In fact, for all the grief that lies behind the music much of the movement is quite subdued and this adds to its impact. This is a fine movement, which impresses through its restraint and relative brevity.

The scherzo is nimble and rhythmically alive. There’s an admirable airiness to the scoring and the music is always light on its feet. The whole piece is most engaging. There follows a second slow movement. Here the tone is wistful but I find warmth in it as well. There’s a quicker, lighter central section, which is quite delicate. Eric Wetherell aptly sums up this movement as "impressive and thoughtful". The rondo finale displays exhilarating energy and the music brims over with vitality.

I was very impressed by this symphony, which seems to me to be an excellent piece of work. After the unduly protracted delay in getting it before the public it’s good to report that the performance under Barry Wordsworth is excellent. The LPO seems to be consistently on its collective toes for him and I sense that the players relished the opportunity to play an unfamiliar but extremely well crafted score.

Wordsworth and the LPO have the field to themselves with the First symphony but they face competition in the Second from the aforementioned ClassicO recording in which Douglas Bostock directs the Munich Symphony Orchestra.

Like its predecessor the Second symphony is coloured by war, but in this case the score was actually composed in time of conflict. Jacob wrote it in 1944 and 1945 and Boult gave its first performance in a BBC studio concert in 1946. The composer himself described the work as a "meditation on war suffering and victory". This time there are the conventional four movements. The first of these opens with a grave introduction, which is full of tension. The introduction gives way to a vigorous and purposeful allegro. Barry Wordsworth drives this on convincingly. Calmer waters are reached around 4:00 in an episode in which the woodwind are prominent but the vigorous material reasserts itself just after 6:00 and prevails until the end. Douglas Bostock is good in this movement but, for me, he’s not quite so intense in the introduction nor can he – and his players – quite match Wordsworth’s dynamism and bite in the main body of the movement. Furthermore the Lyrita recording is the more vivid and spacious.

The second movement is powerful. The tone is set in a strong opening passage for the strings but an important passage of chords on the brass (1:17) really emphasises that this movement is to be an important utterance. That’s followed by a doleful section led by the woodwind after which there’s a long, impressive crescendo, aptly described in the notes as having a "quite Elgarian splendour". Hereabouts, and indeed, throughout the movement Wordsworth’s conducting gives the music breadth and space and he allows this melancholy, deeply felt music to unfold very convincingly. Bostock, too, has the measure of this movement.

The opening of the scherzo is gossamer-light. As the movement unfolds there’s a tremendous buzz about the music and the LPO plays it with tremendous panache and at an exhilarating pace. The trio, in which a long melody for strings is prominent, is more relaxed but the quicker material soon reasserts itself. This is a virtuoso movement – or, at least, it is in the Lyrita performance. Bostock’s account is much less fleet and, frankly, his Munich players can’t compete with the LPO for sheer verve and virtuosity. The finale consists of no less than twenty-seven compact variations on a six-bar long Ground. It’s an ingenious movement, which gradually grows in strength and achieves an imposing end.

This newly released Wordsworth performance must now be accounted a clear first choice for the Second symphony. It’s superbly played and the performance is captured in really excellent digital sound. Of course, Wordsworth faces no competition in the First symphony but even if an alternative version ever arrives in the catalogue it will have to be pretty special to better this Lyrita account. Eric Wetherell’s notes are very good – he also contributes the notes for Bostock’s recording – and include analyses of both works, which usefully include the timings at which salient points in the score are reached in these performances, though occasionally I wasn’t sure if the given timings were absolutely accurate, but they’re near enough.

These are two very fine British symphonies. Both are serious pieces but they are highly approachable, tuneful works and they’re expertly scored. All English music enthusiasts should investigate them without delay for I’m confident they’ll find them as rewarding as I have done. This is another winner from Lyrita.

John Quinn

See also reviews by Dr Geoff Ogram and by Rob Barnett.

The site also has an excellent overview of Gordon Jacob’s life and career.



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