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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D125 (1814-15) [33:05]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D200 (1815) [21:58]
B’Rock Orchestra/RenÚ Jacobs
rec. De Spil, Roeselare, Belgium, 2019 (Symphony 2), Haus der Musik Innsbruck, Austria, 2020 (Symphony 3)
PENTATONE PTC5186759 SACD [55:18]

I had not thought of these two symphonies composed by Schubert from the age of seventeen to eighteen as ‘A symphonic pair’, as RenÚ Jacobs’ excellent and quite extensive booklet notes to this second issue of his Schubert cycle are titled. A check of the Presto database of single CDs in the last five years finds Symphony 2 coupled with Symphony 4 on 4 occasions, twice with Symphony 8, once with Symphony 5, once with No. 6. Clearly these opt for contrast, either with the fourth Tragic, or partly tragic Unfinished, or the more mature brightness of Symphonies 5 and 6. On the face of it, Symphonies 2 and 3 follow the same structural template. Both begin with a diversionary Introduction, a pleasant grabbing of attention not integrated with the main body of the movement, the latter taking place in Schubert’s final, Great symphony. A busy main body of the first movement follows. The second, slow movement is effectively a romanza, the third a bullish Scherzo and conciliatory Trio. The finale is a moto perpetuo merry-go-round. So, what becomes significant is the variety of melodic distinctiveness, but of course Schubert could manage that and more subtle differences from these basics are also to be enjoyed.

Symphony 2’s introduction at the start could be by Mozart, but its second part, in particular its trilling flutes (tr. 1, 0:37), anticipates romantic music. The main body of the movement is pukka classical sonata form and has stress. So, how does Jacobs deliver? His introduction begins sonorous yet quite warm, but soon soft, silkier strings than you’d associate with Mozart give a hint of fairyland and in the Allegro vivace the pp first violins seem like fairy flutter, the tuttis pacy, jolly, convivial, though neat too. When the second theme comes, dolce, in the first violins and clarinet (2:12), the fairy activity remains prominent, as marked, in the cellos and basses and at the end of the second phrase there’s laughter from the flute. Then it takes on a louder, more threatening, cast, notably in the flute (2:29) before the first violins perform a sunny caress of reassurance, whose top F radiance (2:37) is beautifully realized by Jacobs. The tuttis and sforzandos are stimulating, never heavy, after which the soft exposition codetta (3:46) is deliciously feathery. In the development (8:58) a three-note phrase exchanged between the strings and woodwind causes a brief, disquieting stir. Is it too smoothly oiled by Jacobs? Key moments of tension and resolution are smoothly fitted into the overall picture, such as when a high, sustained clarinet call (9:49) is reassuringly answered by low bassoon (9:53). At their last appearance and the close the tuttis and sforzandos are appropriately a little more robust.

I compare the 2012 recording by Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski (Na´ve V5299, only now available as a download at present in the UK). That this is a live recording may be the salient factor in its greater swing and zip. That small difference in timing from the development of Minkowski’s 5:07 to Jacobs’ 5:16 is enough for me to give the development more tension in the clearer projection of its three-note phrases against running quavers. Jacobs is more poetic but Minkowski’s dynamic contrasts are more vivid and rousing. He brings more urgency to the tuttis, more accented sustained tuttis and sforzandos and still without being overweight. Jacobs’ early threatening flute I note above is tamer from Minkowski but in the exposition codetta the descending phrase in sustained notes, traced from the cellos (4:02 in Jacobs) through the clarinets and bassoon to the even more sustained first violins (4:14) is far more and rightly evident from Minkowski. Where you may criticise Minkowski is in his omitting, unlike Jacobs, the exposition repeat, but as this movement’s recapitulation is very orthodox this means the same music is effectively heard twice rather than thrice and for me Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’ doesn’t apply here.

The slow movement, in E flat major, is a theme with five variations. It could have been written by Haydn, but Schubert’s orchestration is more luscious. Indeed, this movement can be compared with the trout one in the Trout Quintet for the joy and ease with which it showcases a range of instruments, so you think of it in terms of instrumental colour rather than thematic variety. Jacobs begins in the theme by winsomely displaying its smooth contours in a flowing Andante but also clarifying, albeit warmly, the maverick element of the sforzando lean at the beginning of the fourth phrase (tr. 2, 0:10). Variation 1 (1:05) spotlights oboe, bassoon and flute in turn with lovely intermingling, not least in the violins’ accompaniment. In Variation 2 (2:07) the baton passes to the cellos and basses while the other instruments make equally clear their crescendos and harmonic contributions. In the second half the flute has the theme, enjoy Jacobs’ extra ornamentation in the repeat, while the violins and cellos have a cheery pizzicato accompaniment before they somehow effortlessly regain control of the theme. Variation 3 (3:14) has a faster feel, with violins in semiquavers and more bounce in the accompanying wind. Here Jacobs brings a sunny expansion of the theme in the violins and an outline of its more basic rhythms and harmonies in the wind. Variation 4 (4:13) is a marked change with loud declamation in C minor from trenchant woodwind and chattering first violins in semiquaver triplets. Its second half is more biting, but for stimulating effect. You can’t take it seriously as there are no timpani in this movement. So, in Variation 5 (5:11) we’re back in E flat major and the clarinet to the fore oozing blandishments with help from the horns and first violins. Then the coda (6:20) supplies a gorgeous sunset farewell, like the Trout again.

Timing this movement at 7:29 to Jacobs’ 7:04, Minkowski takes a more relaxed, intimate, innocent view of it. That early sforzando is more lightly treated, the progression more dainty and more evident the delight in the shaping of the phrases. In Variation 1 that delight is equally heard as the instruments make their solo contributions. In Variation 2 you appreciate the cellos and basses shepherding the whole with a benign, intrinsic authority that has no need to assert itself. A good example is their dissonant low A natural sfz in the middle of their second phrase, where Jacobs (2:18) is more didactic. In Variation 3 with Minkowski you don’t focus, as with Jacobs, on the distinctiveness of the scoring, but rather the gentleness of the overall effect. Variation 4 Minkowski makes a stern change of mood, though a less marked dynamic contrast than Jacobs. In Variation 5 he can then resume his intimate sunniness, though here I like Jacobs’ more indulgent approach which suits its pure Viennese luxuriance. Minkowski’s coda is a warm farewell.

The third movement Minuet and Trio is something of a mirror image of the second, though this time the E flat major material is in the central Trio and the C minor on the outer edges. Jacobs, however, chooses well to point up its differences. That Minuet is really a Scherzo, a breezily abrasive Allegro vivace, but the trenchant chords of the wind and lower strings are undermined by the staccato running quavers of the violins, even if the wind syncopation in the second strain tilts the balance a bit. Jacobs really plays up the Trio: the blithe oboe grins cheekily, the oboes and clarinets become like clucking hens and the horns’ interjections grow increasingly uncouth. So, the idyllic scene of the slow movement is exchanged for a mayhem closer to reality, emphasised by repeats in the Minuet da capo. Minkowski is more conventional in this movement: grimmer wind in the Minuet, more a Spartan rule, the pace of the violins stressed rather than the staccato marking. The Trio, a happy, innocent contrast, is the idyllic slow movement revisited, but then the horns’ last interjection seems an element out of kilter.
 
After the quickest, and from Jacobs deftest, of launches we’re plunged with a three-note slide into a cantering finale whose first theme, despite the opening lightness of touch in the first violins, has the cheery suppleness of flute and oboe additions and the tuttis’ strength of whole community involvement. The second theme (tr. 4, 0:47) is featherlight and lissom on the first violins with delightful woodwind touches of appreciation. Energy spurts continue and the use of silence from time to time for recovery and contrast. In the development there’s a third theme (5:17), a beefy pantomime villain in clarinets, bassoons and low, unison strings, but it’s also a balance to the first theme as its fall and then rise counters that theme’s rise and last note drop. This appears to smooth the way to the recapitulation (5:35), but that’s something of a false one because there’s still fresh tension and the second theme now rather subdued in the minor. The real recap, just of the first theme (7:12), doubles as coda and after all the unexpected twists I feel Jacobs relies, understandably, on disciplined delivery to finish the course. On the final straight I’d have welcomed more of a flourish, clarity and excitement to the fifteen-note stepwise rise in the cellos, basses and bassoons (7:41), dovetailed by the first violins (7:50). This is in fact the third outing of this material now more emphatically and jubilantly scored.

Timing the finale at 7:38 to Jacobs’ 8:11, Minkowski for me better realizes Schubert’s Presto vivace marking. And that’s an equivalent timing as Minkowski’s actual one is 5:24 as he, as in the first movement, omits the exposition repeat. Minkowski begins more softly and feathery, making more contrast with the spirited tuttis, which from Minkowski are more combative, though in a good-natured way. He displays more fizz and enjoyment, which might be partly owing to the live recording. Jacobs impresses in his neatness and rhythmic clarity. In Minkowski’s second theme, taken softly and gently, its sheer melodiousness is more apparent. His third theme has more purposeful rigour, the development showing an eagerness to explore new territory. Those fifteen-note rises are relished by Minkowski from their first appearance (2:05 in Jacobs).

Symphony 3’s Adagio maestoso introduction is more dramatic and substantial than Symphony 2’s, but what is it about? I think of it as a depiction of the birth of the universe from chaos. The opening ff tutti note sounds from Jacobs quite shockingly rough, largely because of the period timpani, but the second rise of the violins (tr. 5, 0:16) finishes with an elaborate flourish of demisemiquavers, soon three times repeated and taken up by the clarinet (0:53), echoed by the flute, by which time the flourish ends with a two-quaver falling motif (1:01), alternating between clarinet and flute plus bassoon. This latter will return. These are the pleasant aspects of the birth, whose pangs have also been felt with Jacobs’ strong emphasis on the fp markings. But he also brings a striking quickening at the Allegro con brio main body of the movement (1:38), like a natural, orderly, everyday beginning of life. It has a kind of introduction, a short phrase followed by the return of that falling motif, now a crotchet and quaver. The first theme proper (2:00) Jacobs shows to be full of delight but tempered by discipline. I love the clarity of the trumpets at the cadence, achieved by pointed articulation and somewhat suppressing the timps. The second theme is cheeky making merry by the oboe (2:33), but the following tutti brings everyone firmly back to work. The progression of this first movement is more tightly knit than with Symphony 2. The development features a good deal of wandering woodwind, also kept in order by fps, while Jacobs secures the same quickening of expectation at the recapitulation as he did at the first appearance of the Allegro theme, but even at the recap it’s further developed: clouds pass over it. We only know we’re home and dry at its next appearance when its demisemiquaver rises pick up the two-note falling motif now triumphantly asserted by Jacobs’ woodwind and horns.

Minkowski begins the introduction with solemnity rather than Jacobs’ shock. His opening is calmer, some of the fps soft pedalled. There’s a sense of mystery and beauty about those later woodwind exchanges. Minkowski, timing the movement at 9:03 against Jacobs’ 8:29, has less zip, with its Allegro gradually building up yet not Jacobs’ sense of quickening. Minkowski offers a friendly solidity, but at the cadence before the second theme you can’t hear the trumpets for the drums. His oboe second theme is blithe and sprightly but without Jacobs’ chutzpah, though the sforzandos in the later tuttis are heavier. The development makes solid progress, but without Jacobs’ feel of unfolding. Nevertheless, Minkowski’s apotheosis of the two-note falling motif is buoyant.

The ‘slow movement’ is presented by Jacobs as a blithe, soft yet pacy Allegretto. It sports an eight-note head phrase, the second half of which begins with one portion of a springing dotted rhythm. Second time around that rhythm switches from first violins to violas, cellos, and basses to neatly stream the piece forward. All this is repeated with flute cheerily doubling the first violins an octave higher. In the second half, brief tension comes when the strings and woodwind repeat that springing rhythm thrice but die away during the second repeat. The genius, however, is the contrast of the central section (tr.6, 0:54), a cheeky clarinet solo, shared with the flute on repeat, the first violins adding a sighing response (1:33), the period strings sweet and glinting and then the vision soon evaporating. Jacobs makes the clarinet theme matey and jolly: a touch slower it would sound more Viennese and glowing.

Minkowski, timing this movement at 4:26 to Jacobs’ 2:53, is markedly slower, nearer Adagietto than Allegretto, but this brings plenty of sedate charm and stylish shaping, though his strong emphasis on the fifth note, the beginning of the second bar, of the head phrase, I find a little mannered. Jacobs uses the same pointing but is lighter and defter. However, I do prefer Jacobs’ honouring of the clarinet melody in the central section, mellifluously blossoming at the apexes of the phrases, sweet violin sighs too and keeping up their intensity afterwards.

The Vivace Minuet, really a Scherzo, Jacobs presents bracingly, sweeping through the sforzandos in the first strain cheerily, while the fps at the beginning of the second are more discreetly pointed and the strong dynamic contrasts throughout vividly and pacily observed. All the same, this is community regimentation, for which these players have to be very fit. The Trio is a different world in which personal joy is allowed, in this case the coupling of oboe and bassoon soloists with sympathetic approval from the strings. And Jacobs encourages this emphasis on the individual, with the bassoon adding one ornament in the repeats of both strains, while in the second strain the first violins get slower in their only solo, rather pertly done first time, and add a slide as they reach for its closing top A (tr. 7, 2:23). Then, in the da capo repeat of the Minuet second strain Jacobs outrageously slows at the moment the first violins anticipate the main theme’s tutti reprise (3:59), pointing up that their ‘anticipation’, unlike the tutti following, is in the minor. Great stuff, but will you still enjoy it on repeated playing?
In comparison with Jacobs, Minkowski here seems relatively conventional with a regular metre, clear thrust yet less freshness of bite. His dynamic contrasts are clear, but more smoothly tempered and so appear less extreme. The lilting quality of the music is emphasised, notably in the second strain of the Minuet and, of course, in the Trio, which is affectionately phrased, sounding more Viennese. Yet, without Jacobs’ bolder approach, Minkowski’s account has less character. Unlike Jacobs, he doesn’t make repeats in the da capo Minuet.

Jacobs’ friendly dash in the Minuet prepares us for his rip-roaring tarantella Presto vivace finale: feathery yet also scrabbling, flitting violins and great sforzando punctuating chords from the wind, frequent crescendo stimuli. Yes, this is uninhibited, invigorating stuff. Period timpani played with hard sticks cut through excitingly without muddying the texture. The second theme (tr. 8, 0:53) is little more than a brief interlude in which a four-note rising phrase, repeated twice in different scoring, is followed by a two-note rising or falling one. Schubert and Jacobs manage to make the development (3:12) more of the same, but fresher still. Yet I particularly admire how Jacobs dispatches it through the warm, rounded tone of the urbane violas’ snatch of a theme (3:27). And don’t the woodwind and brass relish a short contest in alternating sforzandos (3:55), one which surprisingly the woodwind win, but there are only 2 trumpets and 2 horns.

Minkowski, timing the finale at 6:01 to Jacobs’ 6:05, is only marginally faster, but his fluency does convey a little more of a merry-go-round about the whole proceedings. His violins are nifty and crescendos stimulating and his notable pp beginning to the recap, reminding you that’s how the movement started, is more satisfying than Jacobs (at 3:45) because, while still soft, Minkowski has a touch more presence. But from the very first sforzando, Jacobs is more striking and zestful in this finale. Here, at his best, his youthful Schubert is fresh, distinctive, sometimes daring, in accounts of supercharged virtuosity.

Michael Greenhalgh



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