Written by: Nick Breckenfield
Few composers are able to ply their trade solely as composers. One only has to think of Borodin the chemist or Charles Ives the insurance man. Even the Mozarts and Rachmaninovs of this world had to play for a living (admittedly, mostly their own compositions); others sought paid positions – such as at Court or at the head of an orchestra.Furtwängler, Klemperer, Markevich and de Sabata may have wished to be known as composers, but they remain firmly fixed in music-lovers’ minds as conductors. Today the course of ’serious’ music (for want of a better term) can only claim a handful of people who make their sole income out of composition.
One way perhaps for such characters to earn their crust is by music criticism, but there seem to be relatively few. In history, as perhaps the most obvious example, is Robert Schumann. Indeed, Oxford’s new Master Musicians monograph on him, by Erik Frederick Jensen, points out that his contemporaries would be amazed in our interest in Schumann the composer – they would have known him first and foremost as a critic, and the founder of the influential Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. There are two though from the present that spring to mind in London: Anthony Payne (now catapulted into the public eye after his masterly synthesis of Elgar’s sketches for his Third Symphony, which has overshadowed not only his criticism but also his own music) and Adrian Jack.
Jack for the main writes as a music critic for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine, but not exclusively so. He has a wider interest in architecture and painting which has resulted in him presenting programmes on radio about English cathedrals and churches as well as two “radiogenic” fantasies, entitled ’Chromatic Fantasy’ and ’From the Diary of a Fly’, which have combined poetry, prose and music. I have got to know him because of his particular interest in, and phenomenal knowledge of, the piano – he is a loyal supporter of not only the artists in the Harrods International Piano Series but the series itself.His reviews are precise and perceptive, detailed and pertinent, borne of an extensive knowledge not only of the repertoire but also of performing history and an understanding of the keyboard – he is a pianist himself.
His compositions, some of which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and included in two recent concerts in London, are mostly for small combinations of instruments, and for piano solo. He has written five string quartets, the first three already broadcast and the Third and Fourth (première) given at St John’s, Smith Square on 8 February, which also included a stand-alone movement simply called 08.02.01.The Quartet was the estimable Arditti; the occasional piece dedicated to Irvine Arditti on his birthday, explaining the rather curious title. In the notes to the concert, Jack related that the movement had started life as the opening of his Fifth Quartet, but because it rejected all companionship (the actual Fifth, yet to be performed, is now something quite different), it became a birthday present to one of contemporary music’s greatest champions.
The Ardittis paired Jack with another ’J’ – Janáček – playing both of the Bohemian’s string quartets.Given Janáček’s standing in the quartet firmament, this might have been a dangerous move, but Jack’s writing is as subtle as Janáček’s is personal and intimate. In fact the two composers seemed to complement each other very well. Janáček may seem the more modern, but Jack can field a wealth of timbres, like the high harmonics at the start of his Third Quartet over an oscillating accompaniment interrupted by sudden swirling outbursts (eventually returning at much greater speed towards the end of the last movement). You can look to Kancheli for similar effects, and there are often examples from other great composers of which Jack’s music seems reminiscent – from rapt Mahler to motivic rhythms of jazz or minimalists – but that should not be taken as faultfinding. Rather, it is an indication of the honesty of Jack’s music, which can hold its own against all-comers. Jack has said that he is besotted with beauty, an idea definitely out of step with our time, but resulting in works that are refined, special and – perhaps most importantly – memorable.
On 1 April at the Wigmore Hall, the Lake Trio premièred Jack’s suite of seven movements for piano trio called Menagerie. Placed after the interval, after a first half of Haydn (Trio No.29) and Schumann (Trio No.1), we heard all seven pieces, although the short middle three – ’Lions, caged but fearsome’, ’Indian Elephants’ and ’Cobra (asleep)’ – are optional. These quite delightful miniatures are carefully crafted and deftly handled and – apart from the finale, ’Russian Bear’ – seem easily evocative of their titles (although Jack testifies that the titles only came to him after composition). The opening lethargy seems just right for ’South American Sloths’, while the melismas of the second movement transport us effortlessly to the aquatic world of ’Tropical Fish’. After ’Cobra (asleep)’, a simple phrase repeated at least seven times, the penultimate movement is a scherzo for violin and cello with leaps indicating ’Gazelles’. The Lake Trio had obviously prepared well for this première, although the rest of the programme suffered. As a colleague remarked, Haydn sounded like Schumann, Schumann like Brahms; we opted not to find out if Brahms (Trio No.2) turned out like Wagner!
The next scheduled performance of a Jack work is a second performance of Menagerie, but not until May 17, 2002, in Brunel University’s lunchtime series; meanwhile, the Fifth Quartet is completed and awaits its first performance.
Jack’s impressive work list (the official one dating from the late 1980s, which omits earlier works, often scored for larger forces, which Jack now considers grandiose – if enthusiastic – juvenilia) should easily withstand exploratory inroads by interested and enlightened instrumentalists. With nearly fifty solo keyboard works (piano, harpsichord, organ) and about half that number of chamber works – the latest of which is Long & Short, described as a “concise suite for cello & piano”, completed in April this year at the request of Rohan de Saram – Jack’s music is just waiting to be properly discovered!
So, which record company will take the plunge and issue a CD of Adrian Jack’s music? Here is a growing corpus of hugely satisfying chamber and instrumental works by a careful, honest composer, whose music is as deft and succinct as his reviews. In this time of cosmetic ephemera, is it too much to suggest that such enjoyable and lasting works be afforded wider recognition?
Picture of Adrian Jack by Klaudia Gruszka.
(Chiswick House, Decemeber 1999)