Jeffrey Jacob: Reawakening: The Music of Jeffrey Jacob
Navona Records

Composer-and-pianist Jeffrey Jacob has recorded more than 120 works for solo piano and piano and orchestra, including Bela Bartok's major pieces and Samuel Barber's and George Crumb's piano music. Yet Reawakening, a sumptuous sampling of Jacob's orchestral, chamber, and piano works, would seem to have as much in common with Debussy as any other 20th-century figure. Jacob's oft-voluptuous settings are so powerfully evocative, they suggest an immediate connection to works like La Mer or Nocturnes, especially when a number of pieces on Reawakening include programmatic content.

Currently Emeritus Professor at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana and the recipient of many honours and accolades (the Warsaw Music Journal described him as “unquestionably one of the greatest performers of 20th century music”), Jacob has written four symphonies, three piano concertos, and numerous pieces for piano and chamber ensemble. In performances of his works, he's often featured as the pianist, a case in point Reawakening where he plays on five of the seven compositions. His material is richly melodic, though never simplistic in design. Melodies are woven into a composition's fabric with immense care and emerge so subtly from a given setting's lush design one's attention remains fixed on the whole. Another of the release's strengths is its thoughtful sequencing, with the album's initial orchestral settings eventually giving way to a two-part, cello-and-piano duet and solo piano setting. In moving cyclically from birth to death and finally rebirth, the album content is satisfyingly shaped.

Jacob drew for inspiration from Thomas Hardy's poem of the same name for the opening Awakening, which begins somberly with cellos accented by bell strikes and low piano chords, the orchestral design blossoming with the addition of oboe and swelling strings. Jacob's presence grows in prominence as his ornate piano melodies alternate with horns and strings, the whole becoming ever more textural and absorbing, and as the piece advances, Jacob's attempt to mirror in musical form Hardy's evocation of the natural world struggling toward spring and rebirth impresses as all the more convincing.

As vivid is The Loch before Sunrise, an orchestral rendering of an experience Jacob had at Rocky Mountain National Park when he witnessed the stirring beauty of an Alpine Lake at early morning. Even more impressionistic than Awakening, The Loch before Sunrise gradually grows in definition as its various strands unite, much like a landscape blanketed in mist slowly coming into focus. Blending strings, piano, woodwinds, horns, and percussion into a marvelous tone poem, Jacob maximizes the evocative potential of his orchestral resources to conjure the geographical setting's transition from eerie stillness to peaceful awakening. During A Mirror upon the Waters, the Impressionistic quality of Jacob's music is accentuated when splashes of percussive and pianistic colour dominate the opening minutes and when a descending woodwinds melody emerges that sounds much like one Debussy himself might have written.

Whereas many of the album's settings draw inspiration from bucolic pastoral imagery, Music for Haiti takes as its subject matter the devastation wrought by the 2010 earthquake. Yet though the material, scored for piccolo and strings and performed with heartfelt conviction by The Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, exudes the air of a lamentation, vestiges of hope are audible, too. As the recording moves into its final stages, the Sonata for Cello and Piano sees cellist Lara Turner joining Jacob on a two-part excursion that follows a comparatively placid “Lullaby” with the ponderous and occasionally agitated “Expectant; Soaring,” after which Jacob ends the recording with Reawakening, its melodic content overtly referencing the opening setting in solo piano form and thereby imbuing this immensely rewarding album with a satisfying sense of closure and resolution.

April 2017