Classical home listening: Schubert Symphonies 4 & 5; Zacara da Teramo

René Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra fizz in youthful Schubert. Plus, the complete works of a Renaissance eccentric

Schubert Symphonies 4 & 5 René Jacobs

Schubert wrote his first five symphonies in his teens, youthful works without the poignancy and majesty of the Unfinished (No 8) or the “Great” C Major (No 9) yet hinting at what might come. René Jacobs and his B’Rock Orchestra have reached Symphonies 4 & 5 in their cycle for Pentatone (following pairings of 1 & 6, and 2 & 3), and they maximise the potential of these works with raw, restless performances.

This Ghent-based baroque orchestra digs into the urgency of No 4 “The Tragic”, notable for its slow, pensive introduction and the use of four horns instead of the customary two. It’s also the first he wrote in a minor key, choosing C minor, with all its musical associations, of the underworld (Gluck), of chaos (Haydn), of “dark powers” (Weber), as Jacobs’s detailed liner notes discuss.

The shorter, sunnier No 5 in B flat, completed six months later, is for smaller forces: two horns, with no clarinets, trumpets or timpani. The B’Rock players, lovers of speed, carry its lightness with charm and a glint of steel: exhilarating performances all round.

Enigma Fortuna Zacara da Teramo Alpha Classic
Enigma Fortuna Zacara da Teramo Alpha Classic Photograph: Alpha Classic

• For a long time, because of the different ways in which medieval scribes wrote his name, Zacara da Teramo (c1350-1416) was thought to be several people. To compound that view, his strange and original compositions vary wildly in style. Since this papal cantor, born in Italy’s Abruzzo region, had an obsession with cryptic language, games, proverbs and riddles, he would doubtless have enjoyed the confusion. “Let him understand me who can, for I understand myself”, he challenged. The ensemble La Fonte Musica has produced a four-CD set, Enigma Fortuna (Alpha Classics), world premiere recordings of his works, divided into sacred and secular, giving a riveting insight into this eccentric contemporary of Donatello and Brunelleschi.

Zacara has been likened, usefully, to Hieronymus Bosch in his appetite for the erotic, the grotesque, the imaginary, the obscene. In his songs he rails against fortune, which has caused such trouble in his life. The sacred works, often adapting his own music to liturgical purpose, mix the austere and the ornamental. These performances, characterful, pure-toned, immediate, are exemplary.

Watch a trailer for Enigma Fortuna.

• In the Royal Albert Hall, or on Radio 3/BBC Sounds, a chance to hear a large-scale orchestral work after a year or more’s absence: Mahler’s Symphony No 5, played by the specially assembled Proms Festival Orchestra – made up of leading freelance musicians – conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Wednesday, 7.30pm.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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