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Briefly Noted: Jacobs and Schubert (CD of the Month)

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Schubert, "Great" and "Unfinished" Symphonies, B'Rock Orchestra, René Jacobs

(released on August 12, 2022)
PentaTone PTC5186894 | 87'27"

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Symphonies 1 and 6

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Symphonies 2 and 3

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Symphonies 4 and 5
Leave it to René Jacobs to come up with a daring new way to approach Schubert. In 2018 the venerated early music conductor began a complete traversal of the symphonies of Franz Schubert, whom he described as the favorite composer of his youth. In partnership with the B'Rock Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble based in Ghent, he has reached the end with this disc of the composer's last two symphonies. Only No. 7 (the numbering of the Schubert symphonies remains in flux) remains to be recorded, but as Schubert left only sketches of it, it is even more unfinished than the Unfinished (aside from sketches or fragments of other symphonic works).

The group's use of historical instruments reveals interesting qualities in both symphonies. The horn solo that opens the "Great" Symphony has a more rustic quality, and in the first thematic section that follows, the contrasts between the brash brass and percussion and the more frail woodwinds are more stark than with modern instruments. The steady amassing of sound makes the first movement's climaxes particularly exciting. Similar juxtapositions enliven the second movement, which Jacobs gives a jaunty, propelled tempo, and the prolonged scherzo of the third movement. Jacobs thinks Schubert's quotation of the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the finale is "probably unconscious," an odd call to say the least.

For the "Unfinished" Symphony, Jacobs bases his interpretation on a theory about the work first put forward by Arnold Schering in an essay published in 1938. If the symphony is indeed not unfinished at all, Schering attempted to understand its two movements in relation to an allegorical narrative, called Mein Traum (My dream), that Schubert drafted in pencil in 1822. Within a few months of writing this unusual document, perhaps based partly on an actual dream and also on some tragic events in his early years, he was working on the "Unfinished" Symphony. As Jacobs puts it in an extensive booklet essay, including a section-by-section analysis of both works, in Mein Traum "Schubert tries to put into words what he seems far more able to say without words in his music."

Jacobs introduces each of the two completed movements of the "Unfinished" with the corresponding portion of Mein Traum, read in German by Tobias Moretti (the booklet includes an English translation). The first section of the narrative provides an arc something like the sonata-allegro form of the symphony's first movement. Schubert argues with his father and is expelled from the family home (exposition); Schubert hears of his mother's death and returns, his father allowing him to see his mother's corpse and attend her burial (development); another quarrel with the father leads to a second banishment (recapitulation). These events occurred around 1812, the year Schubert's mother died, apparently of typhus after a long life of child-bearing (Franz was the 12th of her 14 children). The "feast" and "garden" in Mein Traum, offered by the father and refused by Schubert, could be metaphors for Schubert's father's ultimately failed attempt to force his son to follow in his footsteps as a school master.

In the conclusion of Mein Traum, Schubert sees the tomb of a "pious virgin" and a circle of youths and old men around her. Jacobs suggests this could be Saint Cecilia, the martyr who became the patron saint of music, and the circle around her the devoted composers of her art. By a miracle he finds himself within the circle, experiencing the lovely sounds in it and feeling overwhelmed with bliss. He even finds himself reconciled with his father, perhaps by having succeeded as a composer. Schubert wrote this mysterious document on July 3, 1822, which happens to be 200 years ago this year. Believing, like Schering, that the symphony was intentionally left unfinished by Schubert, Jacobs does not record the fragments of the third movement. There is no way to verify if there is a connection between Mein Traum and the "Unfinished" Symphony, but this recording certainly opens a new window onto that enigmatic work.

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