Schubert: Unfinished and Great Symphonies (SACD review)

Rene Jacobs, B’Rock Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 894.

By John J. Puccio

First, you may ask, How can it be that the combined total of these two performances add up to over eighty-seven minutes, yet a single disc accommodates them? Usually, a conventional CD can only hold about seventy-five or so minutes of content. But this is no conventional CD. It’s an SACD, a Super Audio CD that allows for longer playing times. Moreover, the performances come in two-channel stereo, not in multichannel, so there’s that.

Next, you may wonder why we are getting yet another coupling of both the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies of Franz Schubert. After all, Herbert Blomstedt released the same coupling on DG at about the time Pentatone issued this album. The answer, I suppose, is coincidence. Third, do we need both the Jacobs and Blomstedt versions at all? Probably not if you already have favorite recordings of the two symphonies, but understand that the Jacobs and Blomstedt renditions are not at all alike. Blomstedt uses a big, modern ensemble, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, while Jacobs leads a smaller, leaner, period-instrument group, the B’Rock Orchestra. So, we would expect them to sound different. However, things are not always as they appear.

Whatever, Jacobs begins his album, for reasons unclear, with the Ninth Symphony and then when he gets around to the Eighth he interrupts it with two text recitations. That’s different, too. But about the Ninth. You’ll remember that the symphony’s configuration is fairly traditional: I. Andante – Allegro ma non troppo; II. Andante con moto; III. Scherzo Allegro vivace; and IV. Finale: Allegro vivace. Nevertheless, its length was quite long by the standards of Schubert’s day, especially when the conductor takes all of the repeats as Jacobs does (and as Blomstedt did). Although Robert Schumann referred to the Ninth’s duration as a “heavenly length,” early musicians found it difficult to play because of its extended string and woodwind parts.

Interestingly, even though Jacobs’s Ninth is a historically informed interpretation done on period instruments, it seems not entirely different from many modern performances and modern bands. Because the SACD affords the music an ample dynamic range, we do get some pretty strong sonic contrasts throughout the symphony, and that’s certainly helpful in setting the Jacobs rendition apart from some of the others. However, there isn’t quite the loving, Romantic tone of Herbert Blomstedt’s version, which DG released around the same time as the Jacobs disc. Meaning that Jacobs sounds more straightforward to me than Blomstedt does, and his rather unvarying pace doesn’t help. Yet I don’t mean that to imply that one reading is any better than the other; they are simply different from each other.

Anyway, Jacobs zips along fairly quickly through the second-movement Andante, and even with all of the repeats it seems shorter than usual. There is certainly nothing slack or anemic about the tempo, just kind of routinely quick. Appropriately, the Scherzo also proceeds with a spirited flair. If maybe Jacobs doesn’t convey quite the convivial air of, say, a Josef Krips, he does catch the dash and bounce of the movement. About the final movement, though: While Jacobs moves it along at a healthy clip, or perhaps because he does move it along so quickly, it seems to lose some of its grandeur in the process. Nevertheless, Jacobs clearly observes the Vivace marking and dashes forward with abandon. What the reading may lose in radiance and splendor, it makes up for in zesty spark.

For a period-instrument performance of the Schubert Ninth, some listeners may prefer the greater elegance and refinement of Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin). Although Jacobs’s vision may not convey the same degree of charm as Mackerras’s approach, it has a rustic, rough-hewn delight of it own. Unless, of course, you simply hate period-instrument bands and historically informed performances out of hand, in which case it’s useless to argue.

Then it’s on to the Eighth, which Schubert began in 1822 but left unfinished after two movements. Discussion about why he left it unfinished continue to this day, with some musical scholars arguing that Schubert did it on purpose. Maybe, but I doubt it. What we have, in any case, is one of the most lyrical, tuneful pieces of music in the whole of the classical catalogue. So why disrupt it with two narrations (“My Dream,” Parts 1 and 2, read by Austrian actor Tobias Moretti)? Schubert wrote the two texts in 1822, around the same time he wrote the Eighth Symphony, so he probably had the music of the Eighth in mind while he wrote them, and they express some lovely sentiments about his life and work. Still, why not let the music express itself, maybe appending the recitations on at the end? Regardless, it’s hard to go wrong with any interpretation of the Eighth, and Jacobs’s version is fine.

Extensive booklet notes accompany the recordings, too. Very useful.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Erdo Groot and engineers Carl Schuurbiers Erdo Groot recorded the music at De Singel, Antwerp, Belgium in December 2020. The sound is done up on a Super Audio CD, which, as I said, provides room for both symphonies on a single disc by presenting them in two-channel stereo rather than multichannel. The sonics may appear slightly thinner in this music than we might be accustomed to, not because of the SACD but mainly because of the smallish size of the ensemble (some forty-odd players). Count that as an advantage in that it’s quite transparent, which when added to the huge dynamic range the SACD produces creates a convincingly realistic presentation. This is music we can not only listen to but listen into. That is, with the relatively small ensemble and the clear, clean sound the SACD affords, we can differentiate the instruments quite easily, with plenty of air and space around them. This is some of the best sound I’ve heard from a Schubert symphony.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information ( toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa