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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No 4 in C minor, D. 417 “Tragic” [31:19]
Symphony No 5 in B-flat, D. 485 [27:50]
B’Rock Orchestra/RenÚ Jacobs
rec. De Spil, Roeselare, Belgium, July 2019 (Symphony No 4); Haus der Musik Innsbruck, Austria, February 2020 (Symphony No 5)
Reviewed as downloaded in 24/96 stereo from press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186856 [59:24]

“A new symphonic pair”, the booklet declares of these two well-loved symphonies by Schubert. Composed in the same year, the fourth and fifth appear, at first glance, to be an antagonistic duo; the former one of the few symphonies at the time written in a minor key and granted its appropriate title, whilst the latter more modest and seemingly more fitting with the times. RenÚ Jacobs’s approach attempts to unite the two under a vision of Romantic turmoil, with varying degrees of success.

The hallmarks of period performance in which Jacobs holds ample experience are certainly present in the fourth symphony; historical instruments are used throughout; tempi are almost unfailingly brisk and vibrato is kept to a minimum. The greatest difficulty in historical performance is inserting colour into the music with fewer techniques at the player’s disposal, losing many which we modern players take for granted, and not sacrificing musicality for the cause of authenticity. The overall form of the introduction is shaped well by means of dynamics, but more use of tonal colouring would go a long way in bringing out the shorter phrasing. The allegro vivace possesses all the thrust and drive one would expect from a fast-paced performance such as this, helped by the highlighting of the wind, brass and percussion in the balance. The resulting effect is more dramatic, Sturm und Drang-esque than most modern performances, of which Claudio Abbado with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe stands out with operatic poise and drama in equal abundance.

Phrases in the second movement are shaped sympathetically, albeit with a light touch, but even here Jacobs keeps driving the music forwards. This feels like an effective approach in the forte sections, though more lyrical moments do have the tendency to feel rushed and wooden. Abbado takes over a minute longer in this movement, which pays dividends towards a more balanced movement.

The third movement may come as a shock to anybody familiar with other recordings of the piece. Jacobs takes the minuet at a brisk pace more reminiscent of a danse macabre; an unorthodox approach but one which, coupled with the dissonance beginning to creep into Schubert’s music, brings out a darker, Death and the Maiden angle on the movement. The relentless drive, however, begins to lag a little in the finale; one issue with setting the bar at such a level of momentum is that more often than not one has little room to build up further. As such, the movement lacks a sense of overarching structure and loses the subtlety and contrast between phrases which such a busy movement desperately needs.

Jacobs attempts to push a similar vision to the fourth symphony onto the fifth, despite the fifth being of a different disposition altogether; the first movement is brisk with an oddly prominent rhythm section in the balance of the exposition. For all its seemingly classical jollity, this can be a difficult movement to pull off; a conductor must balance poise and humour on top of perfect orchestral control. Jacobs appears to suffer from pushing a little too hard and comes off with an overabundance of seriousness.

In the second movement, Jacobs finds and reveals the inner darkness lurking behind a seemingly lyrical fašade, the fateful minor sections manipulated to extend their darkness even into the lyrical sections in between. Despite this, the movement can feel rushed at times, particularly in the lyrical sections; one does feel that a slightly slower tempo would make the contrast between light and dark even more effective.

I would be inclined to call the fourth movement a success; Jacobs is able to inject some much-needed humour and lightness into the finale. However, frequent tempo changes do detract from the listener’s appreciation, oscillating between a pleasantly fast tempo, sudden slowdowns and the whole approach falling over itself. Similar tampering plagues the minuet and trio, though to a lesser extent. Perhaps, then, this sums up the rest of the recording rather well – moments where Jacobs’s unique approach suits the music perfectly; indeed, each listener to their own as to how many of these moments there might be; but as a complete performance, somewhat too hit and miss to recommend overall.

Colin C.F. Chow

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