René Jacobs’ Schubert

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SCHUBERT: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 / B’Rock Orchestra; René Jacobs, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 518656

It’s kind of ironic how former countertenor René Jacobs got into the conducting business. At first, it was Bach that he conducted, music he was familiar with as a singer; then Baroque operas like Handel’s Giulio Cesare; then Mozart operas; and now he’s into 19th-century orchestral repertoire.

This is the third installment in his ongoing Schubert Symphony series. I passed on the first two, but was curious enough to give this one a listen.

The good points of his performances are that he sticks to Schubert’s own prescribed tempi, which are on the brisk side, that he uses excellent dynamics contrasts (also as written), and that he employs a lean orchestra following Schubert’s own orchestrations and not the Brahms orchestrations which became standard fare from the late 19th century until Toscanini came along and upset the apple cart.

The problem is those straight-tone strings. In these performances, it is especially annoying in the slow movements, not too much in the faster ones. Sometimes you don’t notice them too much, particularly when the winds and brass are playing along with them, but in all stand-alone moments they grate on the ear in addition to being wrong historically. But I often feel like a prisoner being held hostage behind a soundproof glass window; as much and I yell and scream at these people that 18th and 19th-century string players ALWAYS used vibrato when playing sustained notes, and only resorted to straight tone in order to facilitate fast passages easier, they can’t or won’t hear me. They’re so utterly brainwashed that reality doesn’t find its way into their minds.

But sadly, we’ve yet to get a consistently great set of the Schubert symphonies by just one conductor. The sets by Harnoncourt-Concertgebouw, Blomstedt-Dresden and Mackerras-Age of Enlightenment Orchestra all contained fine performances and disappointing ones.

So far, however, I’d have to say that Jacobs brings out more in this music, despite my caveats about the strings, than anyone else since Toscanini, and with Toscanini you have to put up with that harsh mono sound quality that often distorted the sound of his orchestra. (Incidentally, I once asked the late David Sarser, one of the NBC Symphony violinists, about Toscanini’s approach to string vibrato, and what he told me was very interesting. Toscanini didn’t like straight tone, but neither did he like the broader German-Austrian violins with their richer, “plummier” sound. He stocked his orchestra with string players who had a very even, fast vibrato that was always present but didn’t sound very prominent. That was why he was able to get the entire string section to play Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo and get them to sound like one violinist.)

An excellent case in point is the last movement of the Fourth Symphony. Never before have I heard so much detail emerge from this movement, and each and every detail adds to the interest of the music. Really, it’s like hearing the music for the first time in your life, and for a veteran Schubert listener like me, that really is saying something.

The Fifth Symphony isn’t played quite as dynamically as the Fourth, but it’s still a very fine performance, and here the straight-tone strings are less of a bother. I did, however, feel that Jacobs whipped up the finale of the third movement a bit too much, although the rest of the symphony is quite excellent.

I only hope that, as the series continues, Jacobs gives us two things that most Schubert symphony sets do not: a complete performance of No. 8, as Mackerras did, and a performance of the oft-omitted Symphony No. 7 as orchestrated by Felix Weingartner or Brian Newbould. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Seventh Symphony; it’s a fine piece of music, and it exists complete, though only in piano score; and although Weingartner’s orchestration may be considered a little heavy nowadays, it’s not as heavy as the Brahms orchestrations, and the Newbould version is even better. I strongly urge Mr. Jacobs to consider including it in his set.

But wait! Just as I was finishing this review, I ran across an incomplete set—Symphonies Nos. 3-8 with, yes, the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies complete—by a conductor unknown to me, Kevin John Edusei, on the Solo Musica label. And the performances are superb in every way, nearly as lively and exciting as Jacobs, but without straight-tone strings. The last of these three CDs seems to have come out in 2020, so either he will complete the series in the near future—he gave a live performance of No. 9 in England in March of this year—or Solo Musica hasn’t made much money off the project, so they’re calling it quits. But this is really the meat of Schubert’s output other than the Ninth, so I say go for it. If Edusei doesn’t complete his cycle, however, Jacobs would be your go-to conductor for Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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