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Gordon Jacob: "Music for a Festival"

In a similar vein to yesterday's post, today's blog post will focus on Gordon Jacob's Music for a Festival. You can find program notes and a recording below. The notes are from a review of the CD "A Festival of Music."

Gordon Jacob followed closely in the footsteps of Vaughan Williams and Holst in the early part of the twentieth century. Together they enriched the repertoire and raised the status of the military band, and of symphonic wind bands in general, as perceived by the musical establishment. These three composers were among the first to give bands music of quality to replace the run-of-the-mill selections of popular tunes that were the staple fare of many concerts. This enterprising CD is a fitting tribute to Jacob from one of the UK's leading military bands for his contributions to the medium over a period of some sixty years.

On this disc are some of Jacob's major works for band. First is the Original Suite of 1928, which is still one of the most frequently played of his band pieces. Apparently it was the publishers who insisted upon the word "original" in the title so that audiences would realise that this was not the usual popular fare! The three movements give the band plenty of contrasts of tempo and mood from the elegant first movement, to the more pensive second and the perky and quirky third. The work receives a splendidly controlled performance from the Coldstream Guards Band.

The overture Ally Pally written for the centenary of Alexandra Palace in 1975 is a dignified tribute in sound to that establishment and it receives its premiere recording here.

One instrument that over the years has gradually emerged from the background to become a respected solo performer is the euphonium. Several composers have written pieces for it, including full concertos. Jacob's Fantasia appeared in 1969 and has proved to be a useful addition to the band repertoire. It is an expressive piece, with a persistent but gentle lilt, though it becomes livelier in the middle section. The soloist, L.Cpl. John Storey, plays with flair, producing a beautifully smooth tone and an eloquent, fluent and sensitive performance.

The Concerto for Band has two brisk outer movements between which is a beautifully serene slow movement. The rhythmic complexities of the fast movements give the band plenty to think about in terms of precision playing while the central movement requires it to be restrained and expressive. The band here delivers first-rate performances with clear-cut melodic lines, precision and delicacy in the quieter moments. It is thrillingly powerful in fortissimo passages yet shows the greatest self-control when the music is marked pianissimo.

In the past, I have often felt that some performers take Jacob's slow movements just a fraction too quickly, with the result that the often subtle emotional content is lost. To my ears, Major Graham Jones has judged his tempi to perfection on this disc. The slow movement of this Concerto is a prime example and it allows the wistful mood to be savoured and experienced to the full. The same is true of the slow movements in other pieces on this CD, and particularly so in the fourth movement (Air) of Music for a Festival. The tempo here is only marginally slower than on other recordings I have heard but it makes a significant difference.

This particular work was commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and is the largest and probably the most widely known of Jacob's works for band. It has rightly become a classic. Its eleven movements are shared by a fanfare brass group (four trumpets and three trombones) and the full band. The brass group play the odd-numbered movements (Interludes), except for the Finale when both forces combine. The Interludes seem to hark back to Tudor times in character, in contrast to the movements for full band which clearly belong to the present day. The work contains much memorable music, such as the masterly Round of Seven Parts for the brass group and the March for band which cleverly combines the March and Trio themes in the final section. The work contains plenty of good tunes and the musicians here give it a sparkling performance.

Finally in this collection is the arrangement, for fanfare group and band, of the National Anthem, originally conceived as an orchestral version for the Coronation in 1953. Jacob's stirring arrangement has stood the test of time and far outshines all others. It is frequently used on state and other important occasions.

The recording quality is excellent. Part of the general clarity must be attributed to Jacob's skills in orchestration but the recording conditions and the musicianship of conductor and band in achieving a good balance of sound all play their part. This CD is highly recommended.

- Dr Geoff Ogram

Album: Gordon Jacob Composers' Collection

North Texas University Wind Symphony, Eugene Corporon, conductor

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