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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D82 (1813) [27:18]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D589 (1817-18) [30:21]
B’Rock Orchestra/René Jacobs
rec. 2018, Saal Innsbruck, Congress Messe Innsbruck
PENTATONE PTC5186707 SACD [57:39]

You may expect Schubert’s Symphony 1 to be pretty stuff. Be prepared to have such an illusion shattered by René Jacobs here conducting the period instruments of the B’Rock Orchestra, whose sound is said in the booklet notes to ‘ooze theatre and colour’; a fair description of the outcome of its ‘impact-driven approach’. This is macho Schubert, you might even say proto-Berlioz. The grandiose Adagio introduction is relished, yet at a pace to match, as intended by Schubert, its return to herald the recapitulation when notated in double-note values in the main body Allegro vivace. There’s plenty of dynamic contrast in the following Allegro. You could imagine that its stentorian tutti chords, in this performance, depict the Furies wishing to master the fairy-like strings and woodwind in the soft rising then falling of the first theme. Its second part soon gets aggrandized in a tutti, so Fairies and Furies come together, at which point the Fairies subvert them with a second theme (tr. 1, 1:39), which is Schubert’s demure and flowing version of that of the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Inevitably this also becomes grander, but more interesting is Schubert’s harmonic shading in becalming it. This all sweeps past so quickly you’re grateful for the exposition repeat to appreciate it, but even first time round you’ll enjoy the skipping accompaniment of the first clarinet and bassoon. The detail of this SACD recording is also a benefit: I’ve never noticed before the fp timpani roll underpinned only by trumpets at the end of the exposition first time. Second time round Jacobs tempers the dynamic contrasts a shade which enables you to savour the melodic flow more readily. The development is all about the second theme, whose increasingly alarmed progression ushers in the big battalions once more with no stinting on dissonances from Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra. Once more the significance of a becalming passage, here entrusted to woodwind alone, makes its mark before the return of the introduction. Here Jacobs ensures you note Schubert’s different touches: an added fanfare tail with dotted rhythm in the wind, more character in the oboes and bassoons’ transition to the second theme (8:58). The woodwind joining it this time are the warmer first oboe and bassoon than flute and clarinet first time, the bassoon beaming in high register. Talking of high register, that of the flute at the end makes it sound like a perky piccolo.

Cycles of Schubert symphonies on period instruments are in short supply, there being only three currently available in the UK, from which I’ve chosen the best known, Frans Brüggen, conducting the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, who recorded the First Symphony in 1997 (Decca 4787839). Timing the first movement at 11:46 to Jacobs’ 11:17 Brüggen is a touch more measured, but you don’t feel this because of his lilting progression in the Allegro. His introduction, on the other hand, has more majestic weight, taking 1:08 to Jacobs’s 0:45, but I prefer Jacobs’s bounce and swagger. Brüggen’s dynamic contrasts are as clear here as those from Jacobs, but the latter presents more dramatic contrasts of mood. Brüggen’s strings’ rising scales have a twinkling, rather mischievous quality, but you don’t think ‘Fairies’, nor with his crisp tutti chords do you think ‘Furies’. And there’s no reason you should: this is just my impression listening to Jacobs. There’s no shortage of verve in Brüggen’s tuttis but they are more euphonious than those of Jacobs. Brüggen’s second theme is smooth and sleek, yet the sforzandi are spirited as it grows grander. In the calm-down the clarinet and bassoon accompaniment is stealthier. Brüggen’s development is a journey of exploration without the anxiety of that of Jacobs. Partly again because of his consistent sprung rhythm and his ability to make the melody always clear even against the pounding double-dotted rhythms of the horns, trumpets and timpani. Brüggen’s return of the introduction is formal, rather stiffer than that of Jacobs, yet still regal. In his first theme recapitulation the first violins’ rising scales are more distinctively feathery but the change of scoring of the second theme finds the oboe and bassoon more bashful than those of Jacobs. Generally, however, Brüggen’s manner is chirpy.

The Andante slow movement, a mini rondo in siciliano dance style, starts from Jacobs as gentle G major relief: a tender theme in the first violins with delicate phrase endings, but with more active woodwind commentary. Come the shock of E minor for the first episode (tr. 2, 0:59) the oboes introduce a tension which the violins try to diffuse. Jacobs maintains a sensitive equipoise between these two aspects. The rondo theme returns with the first violins warmly doubled by the first bassoon and the lovely garnishing by flute and first oboe is also savoured, but while Jacobs is happy with Schubert to spin out this material, does it retreat into its own idyllic cocoon? The second episode, casting a variant of the rondo theme in E minor (3:13), introduces more sober reflection, enough to make the return of the original theme and key an exquisite homecoming. An epilogue somewhat treads water until rescued by a repeated question and response, the response being a rising chromatic scale, a quotation of the end of the second strain of the slow movement first theme in Mozart’s Prague symphony. I find Brüggen less effective in this movement. His accents are a shock rather than, as with Jacobs, a stimulus. Where Jacobs shapes the line to give a sense of ample time for exploration, Brüggen’s uniformity has a rather dull regularity. Unlike Jacobs’ fine balance of wind and strings which allows the open-air quality of the former and delicacy of the latter to coexist intricately, Brüggen’s prominent wind steal too much of the attention.

The third movement Minuet is really a Scherzo, or moving closely towards one, and has a Beethovenian bounce, not to mention the frequently rumbling timpani. But there’s also a more retrospective, humorous quality. The six-quaver clusters that feature jocularly in the flute and violins at the end of the first strain dominate the second, with additional solos from the first oboe and bassoon, in a quieter, more puckish manner. A bonus of this Pentatone SACD is the booklet notes by Jacobs which are scholarly, informative yet very accessible. He compares this Minuet, sometimes aggressive, sometimes light-hearted with a famous ‘minuet-aria’, also Allegretto in ž time, Mozart’s Figaro’s Se vuol ballare, signor Contino. For me that comparison illuminated the movement and Jacobs’ performance, which goes throughout with a swing. In the more genial Trio, which Jacobs claims is and warmly plays as a waltz, Schubert’s evoking of his distinguished predecessors turns to Haydn, with the opening phrase of the first strain and many others shared by the first violins and bassoon an octave lower: compare, for instance, the Trio of Haydn’s Symphony 98. Jacobs cites contemporary authority for playing all repeats even in the da capo, a practice Mackerras reintroduced with Mozart Minuets years ago, and that they are played fast. In the Trio’s second strain the opening phrase of its theme is treated to its own development and then flute, oboe and bassoon pause and have their own doodling session. This gives Jacobs the opportunity to add a little extra sniggering in its repeat. Brüggen’s Minuet has a little more weight but less swing than that of Jacobs. He nevertheless gets a bubbling articulation of the six-quaver clusters, even if they’re not as bright as those of Jacobs, and thus more courtly than cheeky. Surprisingly he does this at a faster tempo than Jacobs, 4:35 against 4:54, that’s even with me adding for the purpose of comparison the da capo repeats he doesn’t make, Brüggen’s actual timing being 3:44.

The finale, like the first movement, is an Allegro vivace and Jacobs gives us soft, nifty violins creating a lightly bustling atmosphere contrasted with loud, boisterous tutti. We’re back to the Fairies and Furies again, except the Furies here are jolly ones and f rather than ff, though Jacobs makes them a strong forte. And you can’t get away from the first movement because the finale’s second theme (tr. 4, 1:09) is a skipping variant of its second theme, which has moved a little further from Beethoven’s original in the Eroica symphony finale, finding oboe and clarinet delightfully curling around the flute as they repeat its opening motif. This all develops into a celebratory tutti, robustly delivered by Jacobs, in which former Fairies and Furies are in total accord. It looks like the development is going to be based on the spinning out of that opening motif, but it soon settles for a repeat of the second theme now in the sunny environment of F major. In Jacobs’s hands you admire the sleight-of-hand Schubert uses to get back to the recapitulation, via some quirky harmonies as the parts echo, then play off one another and finally a quite clinical descent by the woodwind. The extensive and invigorating coda makes for an exciting close and, were you to recognize its final bars, (the same as those of the overture to Don Giovanni) you might feel the Furies have had the last word. Brüggen’s finale’s first violins at the opening are very soft, so much so the second violins’ accompaniment is more distinct. This, however, makes them more will-o’-the-wisp. The contrasting tuttis have an attractive thrust and are less weighty than those of Jacobs, the opposite of my comparison in the Minuets. Brüggen brings more character to the development of the opening motif, revealing an emotional quality where Jacobs is happy to sail through it as a structural transition. Brüggen treats the F major appearance of the second theme beamingly but the later interplay between strings and wind is less good than that of Jacobs because, as in the slow movement, the wind are over prominent. The coda is suitably heady.

Symphony 6 also has a slow introduction, this one more unsettling in its gloomy opening blast from Jacobs, offset by potential consolation from melodious woodwind yet kept restless by a twitchy rhythmic hinterland. Do the accents have to be this heavy, the melodies this troubled? Yes, if you want fully to experience the joy of the frivolity of the Allegro first theme (tr. 5, 1:35) which, if sung, would have been the property of a soubrette. Jacobs gives us the second theme (2:16) as a dartingly syncopated dance while the strings soon make its tail a matter of vigorous revelry. It’s all knockabout stuff. A third theme (2:44) is a milder variation of the second, which it’s then the tutti’s task to enliven. That mildness, however, is deceptive because a descending phrase within the theme (2:48) takes on a black cast in the brief development (5:13), to which the melodious woodwind, again a little troubled as in the introduction, in Jacobs’ hands feign a stylish nonchalance. He achieves a delicate, shadowy quality befitting the fake recapitulation in E flat major (5:45) while maintaining momentum. Jacobs’ booklet notes flag up the moment of transformation when the oboe’s E flat (6:02) moves to E natural (6:03). This isn’t just a matter of cleverness to admire but psychological effect. The coda brings another surprise: a charming calm-down of the first theme morphs into a stormy gallop out of which, however, still peeps its soft, twinkling cheery exuberance. Brüggen recorded this symphony in 1995. His timing for the movement of 9:47 in comparison with Jacobs’s 8:40, doesn’t seem to me an advantage. In the introduction the woodwind, intrinsically beauteous, feel their way, more than Jacobs’s woodwind cowed by the tutti accents. This uneasy coexistence continues in the Allegro when it emerges as that between the forces of merriment and those of industry. The slower tempo makes things more formal. Everything is neatly observed and impeccably articulated but Brüggen doesn’t have Jacobs’s spring in his step in the first theme which gives his woodwind the advantage over the tutti might. And Jacobs judiciously slightly tempers that might so it becomes not a conflicting outlook but a determination to get involved in the fun. Brüggen is similarly less involved in the second theme than Jacobs, though his third theme is pleasantly relaxed. Brüggen’s development is one of rather abstract musing, the fake recapitulation an exotic wander off-piste, the oboe’s rescue smoothly poised. You note the intensity of the coda rather than being swept off your feet by its pace.

Jacobs’ booklet commentary states the second movement Andante shouldn’t be too slow, beguiled by the beauty of its opening theme, because the movement is about peace and war. Is it really? Well, the playing Jacobs gets is persuasive. Jacobs’s opening theme is bright, carefree, but its second strain gives us the experience of disquiet which is then shown resolved in equanimity. The movement’s second section (tr. 6, 2:11) brings the ‘war music’ for which trumpets and drums enter, coming in with force in the second strain. Yet Jacobs conveys this more as a challenge to be faced than a crushing. The indefatigably cheerful first flute, aided by the clarinet, is a significant factor. When the opening melody returns, the emphasis is on semiquaver decoration and the mood thereby more festive. The orchestral garnishing is often exquisite, sometimes piquant and from Jacobs always clear. The disquiet of the second strain also returns, but semiquaver presentation isn’t conducive to menace. Jacobs makes this threat both very firm and easily dismissed by the first flute and clarinet who have quickly followed the quietly rollicking lead of the first violins. All the forces of ill can do is insert a couple of dissonances into the woodwind chords, immediately resolved. Timing the movement at 6:12 to Jacobs’s 5:45, Brüggen is a degree slower and his approach for me is markedly that of a courtly dance. In the second strain I appreciated the intricacy of the first violins’ and woodwind’s demisemiquaver figuration that Jacobs rather throws off, but Brüggen smooths over the disquiet. With Brüggen the accents of the ‘war music’ are a shock but the melodies all around remain as jolly as ever. The response of flute and clarinet is to pay no attention whereas with Jacobs their reaction is more swinging the more the military clamour exerts itself. I prefer this defiance to Brüggen’s head-in-the-sand manner. Jacobs’s opening melody has more edge in its chipper coyness and his first violins are more dainty in its reprise in semiquavers.

As Jacobs points out in his notes, the third movement Scherzo (tr. 7) is modelled on that of Beethoven’s Symphony 1. Jacobs also reveals (news to me) the theme is that of the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 cast and extended in a broader, bolder Beethovenian manner where Mozart continues more playfully and then fugally. Jacobs works his own sleight-of-hand, arguing that because what differentiates a Scherzo from a Minuet is that it’s faster, it has the ‘potential’ to be still faster when it returns after the Trio. The da capo repeats don’t then seem overdone. This isn’t, however, marked in the score and means that a presto Scherzo then becomes prestissimo second time around. Yet for me it’s justified because of the fundamentally light touch and brilliance of the B’Rock Orchestra’s playing. As it turns out it shaves off just 20 seconds from the first time. The fun about the Scherzo is that it mixes a feathery strings and often glittering woodwind progress with boisterous tuttis and accents which head the soft passages. Its second strain is largely musing by flutes and clarinets ambiguously echoed by the strings. Is this in agreement or riposte? The ‘Trio’ (2:41) you could term early 19th century minimalism: bright sonorities but heavy accents are relieved by a waltz with violins’ chattering quaver runs and a primitive melodic pattern in the oboes. Jacobs gives it to us as a bizarre curiosity to offset the fleet-footed Scherzo. Brüggen, timing the movement at 6:15, looks to be even swifter than Jacobs’s 6:31, but if you factor in that he doesn’t make the repeats in the da capo Scherzo, Brüggen’s true comparative timing becomes 7:36. His Scherzo is more explosive and less smiling than that of Jacobs: more Beethoven, less Mozart. His flutes and clarinets’ musing is strong-willed, his violins’ echo morose. But I prefer Brüggen’s ‘Trio’: his more generous understanding of the Piů lento marking, taking 2:10 to Jacobs’ 1:19, gives its opening a rustic grandeur which, as it continues, you realize is pretentious and preposterous. The waltz is made more charming by emphasising the lilt of the flutes and clarinets but suppressing the oboes, yet I think Jacobs is right to bring out the oboes’ crudity.

I’d term the finale (tr. 8) kaleidoscopic and eventful. Jacobs’ description of it as a carnival is helpful. The procession is first observed from a distance with the chiaroscuro effect of cheerful flutes but dusky strings. Jacobs points out that this is a dance, an Ecossaise, and he makes it skip blithely. In the repeat of its second strain he adds a brief, sudden loud dynamic for the twirl in the strings (1:09) not marked in the score but keeping the listener alert. At 1:23 trumpets and drums bring us into closer contact with boisterous celebration. The second theme first features from Jacobs a sunny, smarmy serenade on flutes and oboes (2:01), both vulgar and attractive, then A major turns to A minor with clarinets and bassoons (2:15), a bit seedy but the attraction here is the element of melancholy. The third theme (2:37) is really a sequence of march fragments, march as dance and seen at close quarters passing, spotlighting the instruments near you, so first rather wispy flutes, then more raunchy clarinets. The texture becomes heavier as the whole band asserts its power now and then, with the happiest interchange (from 3:44) between flutes and oboes on the one hand and violins on the other, which Jacobs makes delightfully lithe. Then Jacobs faces squarely a mechanical interchange between clarinets and flutes (4:19), as if the parade has ground to a halt with all continuing to flail their arms as if still in motion. This impasse is rescued by the recapitulation, the parade making its return journey. This time Jacobs I feel makes it a touch more energetic, an aural illusion as his tempo hasn’t changed. The fascination of this return parade is the differences, the extra garlands, ornaments, camp followers accrued. For example, this time the march is begun by the oboes, worldly-wise and its second strain is by flutes, now more sophisticated. Before long (7:24) I feel things start to flag a little, not in tempo or dynamic but somehow mood. I wonder, is this happy or manic energy? The coda, with its mammoth entries of trumpets, drums and now horns as well doesn’t answer this question but poses another: is this magnificence or masquerade? Jacobs leans towards the latter, suggesting the ‘meaning’ of this movement can be illustrated by the painting by James Ensor, ‘Christ’s entry into Brussels in 1889’, which is sumptuously displayed as a double-page spread in the SACD booklet, though cropping the bottom row of figures in the link I’ve supplied. Jacobs emphasises this is Christ almost drowned in a sea of masks and wonders if behind the exuberant notes ‘a small, lonely and sad Franz Schubert is hiding.’ For me this is too downbeat: I view Schubert as one who conveys humanity in all its quirks, pleasure and pain. But yes, this finale celebration does have a sardonic edge and Jacobs is right to alert us to it.

One thing is certain: Schubert never saw Ensor’s painting. Brüggen, timing the finale at 10:15 to Jacobs’s 9:25, gives more emphasis to the latter aspect of Schubert’s Allegro moderato marking. This gives the opening a feel of rather lethargic people starting to wake up, not in perspective as it should be like Jacobs, but folk gradually joining the company, the clarinet a distinctive addition. The trumpets and drums’ entrance is spick and span. Brüggen doesn’t enjoy the second theme beginning like Jacobs: he emphasises the chromatic elements in the melody and garish offbeat accents in the accompaniment, creating a saturnine manner, pre-empting the theme’s later treatment in A minor. Brüggen’s march theme is like a musing essence of a march rather than a march itself and the clarinet and flute minimalism, which ends it, has an attractive ingenuousness where Jacobs makes it an irritating deadlock. The lightness that Brüggen brings to the return of the opening theme is refreshing. The additional detail Schubert supplies in the return parade is very clear. Brüggen seems to look objectively at it all where Jacobs seems more hands-on. Curiously, that point where I feel things flag a little from Jacobs, Brüggen (8:32 in his timing) becomes a touch more urgent and to advantage; yet this burst of energy to usher in the coda smacks of desperation. I wonder, what does it all signify?

To sum up, these performances by Jacobs are very fresh, with dance and drama often to the fore that challenge you to think again about Schubert’s approach in its historical context. I don’t think everything he does succeeds, for instance determining that Symphony 6’s Scherzo Trio waltz must be a fast one. But some of his innovations, such as playing the da capo repeat of that same Scherzo prestissimo, are enlightening, as is his commentary.

Michael Greenhalgh

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