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James A. Altena
Fanfare, May 2011

Following hard on the heels of the CD of English recorder concertos…Naxos now offers a disc devoted entirely to recorder music by the English composer and pedagogue Gordon Jacob (1895–1984). While more influential as a teacher (he wrote several major textbooks), arranger, and editor of musical scores, Jacob was a first-rate craftsman as a composer. His compositional style tended toward the neoclassical, with its identifiably English style leavened by influences from French and Russian sources. Here—not surprisingly, given the venerable history of recorder ensembles in Tudor courts—the British side is to the fore.

The majority of the works on this album were composed for the pioneering recorder virtuoso Carl Dolmetsch (1911–97). The Suite for Recorder and String Quartet from 1957, Jacob’s earliest essay for the instrument, is in seven movements, alternating slower and livelier types of dances and airs. The string quartet is used primarily as an ensemble rather than as competing solo players. It is a thoroughly engaging if undemanding composition, and along with the Trifles discussed below is one of my two favorite pieces on this album.

The 1962 Variations may be accompanied by either piano or harpsichord. The latter is presented here; I would be intrigued to hear the former. A stately graceful theme is introduced, after which follows a sequence of 10 brief variations, by turns witty, energetic, and gently reflective.

The 1967 Sonata is cast in four movements in the standard slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of the Baroque sonata da chiesa. It is dedicated to Anthony Pringsheim, the recorder-playing son of the publisher of the Variations. Stylistically this is the most “modern” piece in the lot, featuring some particularly aggressive and spiky dissonance in the Scherzo. I personally find such an idiom not well suited for the recorder due to its soft-grained sound, and correspondingly consider this to be the least effective composition played here, though it still has considerable merits.

In 1971 and 1972 Trifles and the Consort followed in quick succession. The former is a sly and tuneful set of four musical apéritifs (all bearing French titles) that provide unalloyed musical gustatory pleasure. The Consort in six movements is written in an unabashed imitation of similar Renaissance and early Baroque suites, with suitably updated harmonies, and is equally entertaining.

Jacob’s last work for recorder, the 1985 Sonatina, was penned for the renowned virtuoso Michaela Petri. Here the four-movement sequence is that of the Classical rather than the Baroque era, with the Menuet in second position. However, the piece is neither neoclassical nor neobaroque in style, but instead freely ranges between various idioms to establish an idiosyncratic but highly attractive and effective voice of its own. A notable feature is the strumming of the harpsichord strings in the third-movement Adagio like an orchestral harp accompaniment.

Annabel Knight is an exemplary soloist, with smooth tone and breath support, fine legato, and nimble technique. She is ably supported at every turn by Robin Bigwood at the keyboards, the Maggini Quartet, and the Fontanella recorder ensemble. The recorded sound—crisp, clear, and a touch on the dry side—and program notes are up to typical fine Naxos standards. Fellow recorder enthusiasts should waste no time in scooping up this release.

Todd Gorman
American Record Guide, March 2011

The playing, all by British musicians, is superb. Interpretations have flexibility, character, and accuracy. Substantial notes are included with this release…Check the last issue for English Recorder Music by John Turner (Naxos 572503)—a worthwhile companion.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Mark Sealey
Classical Net, January 2011

This is a CD that demonstrates just how different the world of Gordon Jacob (who was born in 1895) was from that of composers writing today—even as little as 25 years after his death, in 1984. Jacob’s teachers included Stanford and Howells; his pupils Malcolm Arnold, Imogen Holst and Antony Hopkins. What you’ll hear on this CD is music that’s both highly suited to the instruments which he chose to write; or was commissioned—by Carl Dolmetsch—in the case of the Suite for Recorder and Strings. It’s all music which is melodic, aggressively tonal, at times chromatic. Its musical sensibility is very aware of the styles and genres of earlier British music. And indeed of the instruments on which much of it was played… harpsichord, recorder in particular.

But these are not innocuous or “folksy” compositions that run on the spot. Although mostly short in duration (no single movement lasts more than four and a half minutes; no piece more than twenty), there is much of substance and much to delight on a CD which contains two world premières recordings (the Sonata for Recorder and Piano, though written in 1967; and the Trifles, in 1971) and a world première arrangement (the Suite’s, for string quartet, 1957). It’s a tribute to Jacob’s inventiveness that these performances sound so fresh and full.

It’s also a tribute to the Maggini String Quartet, the five-person all-recorder ensemble Fontanella, Robin Bigwood (harpsichord, piano), and Annabel Knight. Her playing is very “present”, closely recorded and not afraid to be as transparent as intimate woodwind at times requires…she exposes breaths, phrasing and a command of rhythm that are the result, it seems at times, of thinking on the spot; but without hesitation. For she’s following the composer’s ideas as they emerge. This makes her playing sound spontaneous and vibrant. This is nowhere more true than in the (scherzo and largo of the) Sonata for Recorder and Piano [tr.s 13, 14]. The latter movement, incidentally, introduces more chromaticism and tonal adventurousness than elsewhere in the selection of Jacob’s music on this CD. This re-inforces Jacob’s claim, if not to out and out “modernity”, to a currency with the extent to which purely musical developments can and do express the concerns that many British composers felt in the last century with the pastoral, the historic and the rich cultural quilt under which they could either take cover, or to which they added new and colorful patches. By choosing the sonorities of these instruments, and in particular by honoring the beauty of their combinations, Jacob kept at least his head and perhaps one limb visible beneath that patchwork.

That, if anything, is the essence of this CD: that this composer largely of symphonic and chamber music nevertheless explored new textures and slightly provocative juxtapositions; yet used in familiar genres with which to do so. The Consort of Recorders, for instance, is not a pastiche, for all it draws on earlier recorder styles and is built on movements whose thrust is the pageantry and musical life of many centuries earlier. Nor is this (type of) composition an update or arrangement of former successes, as practiced by Britten or Warlock, say. There is a note of stimulus, aggression almost, that obliges us to take notice and read Jacob’s intentions for what they are. The melodic intervals repeated again and again in the same work’s “Nocturne” [tr. 17], for example, are not cuckoos or “lonesome maids”. They are simple yet effective musical ideas in their own right, speaking straight from the twentieth century.

This music owes a great deal to Dolmetsch, who became a friend of Jacob as a result of the former’s requests, commissions and performances. Knight could have stood in his shadow. Yet her playing is penetrating, sharp and resonant in ways in which that of the former was not. It has an urgency and eagerness to communicate which are well supported by the Magginis and Bigwood. Indeed, it’s obvious that they enjoyed making this recording and exploring the works they play. It’s also to be noted that it was Danish recorder virtuoso Michala Petri for whom the “Suite” was originally written and who has her own recording of this piece on Philips 476164-2.

The music on this CD works as well as it does because its performers have taken to heart Jacob’s implicit exhortation to treat the recorder as “just another instrument” and not a curiosity. That’s how they play from first to last. No fragility, no romantic wrapping, no sideways approach to its now perhaps somewhat unfashionable sound. There are no other recordings of the works currently available; it’s good to see a CD devoted entirely to this composer, who’s somewhat difficult to program and anthologize for the reasons stated. And, to repeat, the playing of all those involved is first rate— expressive, technically accomplished and persuasive of the value of Jacob’s contribution to music in every way.

The acoustic and recording are excellent; the balance perfect; and the atmosphere created—if perhaps a tiny bit claustrophobic—conducive to our full concentration on the music. The liner notes are full and helpful. All in all a CD to be taken seriously and used as an enticing example of Jacob’s output. Or enjoyed just if such repertoire, period or type of music as this attracts you. If you’re enthusiastic about Jacob, of course, it’s a must.

James Manheim, January 2011

Gordon Jacob, born in 1895, taught for many years at the Royal College of Music; one of his students there was Malcolm Arnold, and one can hear the connection in these little pieces for recorder. Jacob wasn’t particularly a recorder specialist but wrote idiomatically for a wide variety of instruments in a neo-classic idiom shaped somewhat by English pastoralism and by the heritage of English music. Putting these influences together with a solo recorder was a promising line of inquiry, and it’s not surprising that he wrote several works for the instrument, two of which are given their premieres here by the agile British player Annabel Knight. The finale of the Suite for recorder and string quartet (1957), commissioned by the great recorder revivalist Carl Dolmetsch himself, makes considerable demands on the player, but there are no extended techniques, and the virtuosity does not draw attention to itself. Jacob is at his best when he forces the specific implications of the recorder sound into his music for the instruments. A Consort of Recorders, composed in 1972 and performed here with the recorder group Fontanella, is a nice mixture of genre pieces in various styles fused with the Renaissance consort concept, and the Suite has a similar effect. The brisk Sonatina for treble recorder and harpsichord is another standout, with strong overtones of the dawn of the early music movement in Britain. The two works for recorder and piano (even though the Variations for treble recorder and piano of 1962 can also be played on harpsichord) make less successful use of the recorder, but, as Knight pointed out, the British repertory has been sorely neglected in favor of Dutch and German modernist recorder works, and this program is full of charming moments and fresh discoveries. Clear chamber music engineering at Suffolk’s Potton Hall is another plus.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, December 2010

For me Gordon Jacob had always been admirable for his craftsmanship, but not too much for expressive ability. Almost everyone loves the Suite for Recorder and Strings, but I am forced to confess that the other works on this disk of recorder music have made me a convert, given the range of feeling they encompass.

As can be seen above, the version of the famous Suite here is accompanied by string quartet. This provides a very different sound from the usual configuration, one which I found not quite as rewarding. But I was totally taken with the Variations for Treble Recorder and Piano, which not only shows great inventiveness in form, but plumbs some emotional depths.

Of similar heft to the Variations is the Sonata, again for treble recorder and piano. This contains both an andantino and a largo that amply demonstrate how serious the composer could be, while the other two movements are most enjoyable, with a serious ending to the scherzo. Trifles has more to it than the title implies; it shows more invention than one would expect and a very clever use of the harpsichord. I found the Consort of Recorders the least impressive of the works here. Perhaps this is due to my having been dragged to so many multiple recorder concerts. On the other hand, the Sonatina, again with harpsichord, is very absorbing and has a beautiful theme in the adagio.

Annabel Knight is a performer who seems to be able to accept any challenge when it comes to the recorder. There is a lot of repertoire I hope she records in the future. Robin Bigwood ably accompanies her on both piano and harpsichord, notably on the latter. He also engineered and co-produced this recording: a man of many talents. The Maggini are beyond comment at this point and this record does nothing to lessen their repute. With a high woodwind instrument such as the recorder a certain amount of shrillness is inevitable, but it not a major problem. This recording is definitely an eye-opener both as to Jacob and as to the modern recorder.

Dr Geoff Ogram
MusicWeb International, November 2010

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 works for the recorder in the twentieth century. But the greatest number 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 the redress a balance. After all, proponents of the avant-garde recorder movement in Germany and The Netherlands in the 1960s neglected late twentieth century English repertoire. Ms Knight has gained a considerable reputation as a recorder virtuoso and teacher for some twenty years since she studied with Ross Winters at the Royal College of Music in the 1980s.

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.

WRUV Reviews, October 2010

British composer Gordon Jacob (1895–1984) wrote modern pieces for recorder, sometimes melancolic and sparse, usually avoiding the “Renaissance sound” except in his Sonatina for treble recorder and harpsichord, (and that could be the harpsichord). Mostly short, interesting works.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Now along comes this absolutely delightful disk of easy going, and most mellifluous, chamber music, which complements the recording of Jacob’s Viola Sonata (part of a very satisfying collection of British Viola works, played by Martin Outram (viola) and Julian Rolton (piano) (Naxos 8.572208)).

As a composer, Gordon Jacob was a fastidious craftsman, and he seemed, instinctively, to understand the nature of every instrument. He was a master orchestrator but his knowledge of instrumentation went beyond mere knowing the technical capabilities of the instrument he was writing for – he had a knack of creating exactly the right music for each instrument. Thus these pieces would not work as well if played on the flute, although they would sound lovely, and something of the special nature of the recorder would be lost. It’s like transposing a song into a key better suited to one’s voice; never a good idea.

All these pieces are light in nature, but serious in intent. They are full of the most gentle lyricism, and the tunes show unusual and quirky turns at almost every turn. The early Suite with string quartet is a fine example of this melodic gift. Take the second movement, for instance. On the surface the quartet play music which could be described as English pastoral but when the recorder is added something magical happens and the landscape is broadened by the twists and turns of the tune. This is the most ingratiating music imaginable and totally charming.

The solo pieces with harpsichord evoke an earlier Elizabethan age with delicate traceries running through the music and when pitted against the contemporary concert grand, even though one might imagine the small voiced recorder to have problems, there are no such problems with the pieces which include that instrument here. Jacob’s adroit ear for sonority and balance are finely tuned to such pitfalls and he creates works which are real partnerships and the larger instrument never overpowers his partner.

The Consort of Recorders is a very pleasing divertissement for four instruments and the final Trifles, with violin, cello and harpsichord are uproariously comic.

Naxos has done Jacob proud with this issue. The performances are superb, the recorded sound excellent and the notes good. It’s a real treat to have this disk available and give us another insight into Jacob’s work. It’s far too good and enjoyable to miss!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Gordon Jacob wrote an abundance of music that at the time was enjoyed by audiences and praised by the critics. Born in London in 1895, he had been the product of Stanford and Howells at London’s Royal College of Music and was to return there in a teaching capacity that lasted for almost forty years. He had in no way been drawn to the recorder as a solo instrument until he was approached to write a work for the famed Carl Dolmetsch, the musician who had been regaining a place for the recorder family in the 20th century. Jacob responded with the Suite for recorder and string quartet, an inspired combination in itself. Nothing heavy or particularly serious in the seven movements, it is so instantly pleasurable. Later taken up by the young Danish virtuoso, Michala Petri, she again sparked Jacob’s interest, the result being the Sonatina from the ninety-year-old composer. He uses the harpsichord as accompaniment, and with a modern slant, uses the recorder as it would have been heard in the age of the harpsichord. It was a score to showpiece Petri’s virtuosity, the finale being a joyful romp. The remainder of the disc was inspired, in some way or another, by Dolmetsch, but the partnership of recorder and piano sounds so ill-matched in the Sonata of 1967, and I wish the Variations had been played with the harpsichord accompaniment offered by Jacobs as an alternative to the piano. A Consort of Recorders, played by Fontanella, is new wine in an old bottle, but there is originality in Trifles, its four movements shaped by thoughts of food. Annabel Knight is the convincing guide throughout, the Maggini Quartet being in fine shape, and it is two of its members who come together with the harpsichord of Robin Bigwood in Trifles.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group