JACOB -In Memoriam. Piano Concerto No. 2. Symphony: Winter Lightning. Carol of the Bells

JACOB -In MemoriamPiano Concerto No. 2. Symphony: Winter LightningCarol of the Bells • Jeffrey Jacob (pn); Maria Staeblein (pn); Moravian PO;Toshiyuki Shimada (cond); Hradec Kralove PO; Jon Mitchell (cond); Moscow SO; Joel Spiegelman (cond) • VIENNA MODERN MASTERS VMM-3057 (75:50)

I have been familiar with Jeffrey Jacob as a superb pianist for about twenty years, chiefly through his performances of music by Persichetti and Barber. I was also vaguely aware that he composed, but never actually heard any of his music until the arrival of this recent release. Now in his late 50s, Jacob has served for many years on the faculty of St. Mary’s College in Indiana.

The CD at hand presents four substantial works composed between the years 1992 and 2002. Each featuring the piano in a central role, the works are similar enough to serve as a representative introduction to Jacob’s music, at least for the period indicated. In fact, this very similarity emerges as the music’s chief weakness. Described collectively, Jacob’s music typically opens with angular gestures, dissonant harmony, and shimmering, percussion-laced orchestration that immediately proclaim its modernism, but as each piece unfolds, these elements prove to be largely coloristic and superficial, as its language becomes more tonal or modal, and saliently melodic. Its formal articulation is rather loose and rhapsodic, with a strong emphasis on mood, considerable expressive immediacy, and an almost improvisatory sense of spontaneity, not unlike a filmscore. Some passages seem designed to induce a meditative state of mind. The piano writing is, not surprisingly, expert, tending toward a richly textured filigree that at times calls to mind the dreamlike material in the first movement of the Barber Sonata (which Jacob has recorded). The orchestration is rich and highly colorful, sometimes suggesting gamelan-like effects. Jacob’s own performances are brilliant and sensitive, while the playing of the three different orchestras is more than adequate. The music at times recalls the celebrated improvisations of Keith Jarrett; among composers of concert music, its closest link is with the music of Joseph Schwantner, although Jacob’s identity is not as distinctive—which may or may not be to its credit, as Schwantner’s instant identifiability may be his biggest limitation. In any case, like Schwantner, Jacob seems to be attempting to reach beyond the typical classical music audience to a broader, less traditional listenership, and his music avoids developmental complexities that might prove to be barriers for less sophisticated listeners. I can well imagine Jacob’s music appealing to a fairly large audience.

As noted earlier, there is a considerable “sameness” to the pieces presented here. Jacob considers Symphony: Winter Lightning to be one of his most important and characteristic works. On the other hand, the work that made the strongest impression on me is In Memoriam—the most recent, and, at 27 minutes, the longest of the four. Scored for two pianos and orchestra, it was dedicated to “the children of the Middle East.” On its own, I found it to be quite compelling, moving, and satisfying, and I think that most concertgoers would react similarly. But all four offer similar rewards; it is when hearing them in succession that one is struck by their sameness. If one were to “drop the needle” in the middle of one of these pieces, I don’t think I could identify which one it was. Of course, each has its own particular features: the Piano Concerto is especially virtuosic; Carol of the Bells emphasizes metallic percussion sonorities—that sort of thing. But I would like to hear Jacob achieve more true diversity of expression without sacrificing his individuality or his immediacy. 

In conclusion, I would recommend this CD (available from www.cdemusic.org) to those who enjoy Keith Jarrett and Joseph Schwantner, as well as to others who are open to some listener-friendly, but definitely modern, music.