BBC Legends – Jascha Horenstein

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.6 in A minor
Symphony No.5
Semiramide – Overture

BBC Symphony Orchestra [Rossini]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra [Mahler]
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Jascha Horenstein

Mahler recorded on 10 January 1969 in Winter Gardens, Bournemouth; Nielsen on 26 February 1971 in BBC Studios, London; Rossini on 6 November 1957 in BBC Studios, London

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: October 2006
BBCL 4191-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 18 minutes

Jascha Horenstein (1898-1973) always insisted he should never be regarded as a specialist conductor. Nevertheless, his name is irrevocably associated with the post-war Mahler renaissance, and the main focus of interest in this latest BBC Legends issue of his work will, for many, be his 1969 Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra broadcast of the Sixth Symphony, a work he conducted rarely, and a score, which, in 1969, was still something of an unknown quantity.

Nowadays, we think of the Sixth as one of Mahler’s finest works – many consider it his greatest symphony – though we should also remember that its rise to pre-eminence in the Mahlerian canon is a comparatively recent occurrence, and that for many years the score, with its overtly classical structure and bleak emotional content, was considered intractable. Such eminent Mahler champions as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter refused to conduct it – Walter even went on to disparage certain sections of it, a major lapse of judgement on his part. Hermann Scherchen, meanwhile, performed it with cuts, and some conductors in the 1950s and 1960s are generally assumed not to have got the measure of the piece: John Barbirolli’s performances of the Sixth, for example, are commonly regarded as lagging behind his other Mahler interpretations in quality.

Horenstein came to the Sixth comparatively late – in 1966, after he had absorbed the rest of the Mahlerian symphonic canon, with the exception, it would seem of the Ninth – and only conducted it four times, of which the Bournemouth performance was the last. Two of Horenstein’s previous versions – from Stockholm in 1966 (the first time he conducted it), and Helsinki in 1968 – are extant. I confess to being unfamiliar with both, though the Stockholm recording has long been commercially available. It clearly divides opinion: Joel Lazar’s booklet notes for the Bournemouth version describe the Stockholm taping as “flowing” and “Romantic”; “The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs”, though generally admiring, considers it “sober”.

None of these adjectives, certainly, are quite adequate to describe the Bournemouth version, though its merits and occasional failings must, I think, be appraised in the context of the ongoing historical process of the work’s re-assessment. Though Horenstein’s interpretation can in no way be considered as lacking in cogency, there is a sense, throughout, of conductor and orchestra discovering, exploring and coming to terms with a score contemporaneously regarded as equivocal.

It’s well played, though not greatly so, with moments of instrumental tentativeness, particularly from the brass in quieter passages. Some of it is rough-edged, far removed from the smooth fluidity of a Karajan or from Simon Rattle’s chilly clarity. Some of it is also less than beautiful – though any interpretation of Mahler’s Sixth that can be seen primarily in terms of ‘beauty’ may also be said to have missed its mark. Though passionate, it’s not neurotic, as one might expect from Horenstein, whose approach to Mahler is always free from the sense that the symphonies primarily constitute the inchoate, splattered externalisation of internal psychodramas.

Here, one is acutely conscious of attention to structure and form, of patterns of tension and release, of harmonic experimentation, of pervasive and extended contrasts of mood. The spectral quality of the bridge passage from the first to second subject of the opening movement extends beyond the subsequent development into the rest of the work, infusing the lop-sided patterns of the scherzo’s trio and the whirring lurch that launches the finale and returns throughout its course. Speeds, occasionally on the slow side, seem unerringly right, throughout, and a measured tread infuses the whole work – telling in the first movement, where the repeat of the exposition is characterised by gains in intensity and mood.

This is a performance that is far from ‘Romantic’ and in which the burgeoning elements of modernism are often ubiquitous. As one might expect from a conductor who admired “Wozzeck” – Horenstein performed it in Düsseldorf in 1930 under the composer’s supervision, then gave the Paris premiere in 1951 – there are strong pre-echoes of Berg, both in the protracted, tangled harmonies that spell out despair, and in the novel contours of the thematic material, particularly in the slow movement, which frequently, despite repeated hearings, conspire to pull the listener of balance. The tone is toweringly tragic – this is very much a performance that justifies the symphony’s nickname – and the climaxes are convulsive, though there are also moments of impish bravado, above all in the first movement, where the march attains a cocksure, defiant swagger, and in the scherzo’s trio, in which you get a sense of 18th-century classicism being gleefully dismantled.

You have to make allowances for the (mono) sound, despite excellent re-mastering, which is boxy – and for coughs, a lot of clatter and a certain amount of re-tuning between movements, but this is a remarkable experience, no question – far more impactive than many other versions that may be considered more ‘finished’ or ‘perfected’.

Mahler, however, was by no means the whole Horenstein story, as proved by the other two items in this release. If Horenstein came to Mahler’s Sixth comparatively late, then he came to Nielsen’s Fifth unusually early, and in circumstances which he describes with great charm in the interview with Deryck Cooke (from February 1971) included on the second disc. Nielsen was just a name, as far as Horenstein was concerned – as, one suspects, he was to many at the time – when Furtwängler asked him to cover rehearsals for a Frankfurt performance of the Fifth Symphony in 1927: Furtwängler undertook the performance, according to Horenstein, at the insistence of his then wife, who was Danish. The interview contains affectionate memories of Nielsen himself – “a very lovely man, very pleasant, soft-spoken, extremely modest, old-fashioned in his dress, very human” – and of Furtwängler’s own performance of Nielsen’s Fifth – “very exciting”, along with plenty of evidence of Horenstein’s own enthusiasm for the piece. He draws startling, if totally apt comparisons with Janáček (Horenstein conducted the Paris premiere of “From the House of the Dead”, again in 1951), and calls the score “one of the chef d’oeuvres of symphonic music by virtue of its complete originality from the very first bar to the last.”

Not everyone would agree – Cooke concurs on the work’s originality, but also admits to finding it “very strange” – though listening to the performance included here, one has little doubts as to Horenstein’s belief in it quality, or of his affection for the score. The presentation advises that this performance was taped in 1971, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, in either the Albert Hall, Nottingham or in the BBC Studios, London (Maida Vale). The latter is now verified as correct.

Horenstein’s enthusiasm clearly affected the orchestra, which seems to have taken with alacrity to what was – and for many still is – an unfamiliar, difficult score. The playing is electrifying, with not so much as a hint of the tentativeness of the Bournemouth Mahler Six, two years earlier, while Horenstein’s interpretation is seamless, exceptionally moving and at times deeply disturbing. It’s superbly shaped and wonderfully cogent – the argument that the score’s two movements are too disparate in tone simply doesn’t wash here. The slow section of the opening movement is tremendously eloquent – and though Nielsen’s compressed symphonic method in many respects is antithetical to Mahlerian expansion, one notices certain similarities in the use of themes that follow contours that take you by surprise. The battering assault of the side drum in the opening section is by turns insidious, terrifying and triumphalistic. The lurch with which Horenstein launches the second movement is shocking, and the sense of dislocation that characterises the whole work reaches its apogee in the movement’s broken-backed fugue, which is characterised by a despairing aridity that both compels and alarms.

I am also unfamiliar with Horenstein’s commercial recording of the work, made 16 months before the present performance, though it would be hard to imagine the work ever being better done.

Horenstein’s BBC Symphony Orchestra performance of the overture to Rossini’s “Semiramide”, meanwhile, dates from 1957. This is the only one of the three works included here that was probably more familiar at the time of recording than it is now, though it should be added that few at the time were perhaps fully aware of its significance. The opera itself underwent a major revival in the subsequent decade, largely thanks to the efforts of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland, and many were alarmed to discover that the overture, considered graceful and something of a pot-boiler, actually preceded a massive, tragic piece of music-theatre on the subject of mother-son incest, and that this was music, which, at its first performance in 1823, managed to scare the audience half to death.

Once again, however, we are aware of a formidable intelligence at work here, for Horenstein restores to the overture some of the power it had lost in previous generations. Many will nowadays consider the enormous forces deployed old-fashioned, though the sheer sonic weight adds immeasurably to the oppressive atmosphere of it all. The opening horn melody sounds a bit heavy and Germanic, rather than Italianate – though it also, unusually for the time, sounds remarkably sinister, and you’re also left wondering just how much Rossini knew of the comparable passage in Weber’s “Der Freischütz”, premiered two years earlier. The subsequent allegro, with its massive crescendos, has much of the measured tread, and phenomenal inexorability that Horenstein subsequently brings to Mahler’s Sixth.

Many will doubtless regard it as something of a curio. Horenstein’s forays into this repertory were, of course, extremely rare, on disc at any rate, though this serves as a reminder of the depth of understanding he brought to almost everything he did – and that he was, indeed, right to deplore being pigeonholed as a specialist conductor.

  • A footnote by way of an anecdote regarding the Bournemouth performance of Mahler 6, as told by someone who was present. The account issued on BBC Legends should have taken place as a Thursday evening subscription concert. Horenstein, wanting more preparation time, substituted the Mahler, which was instead played the following afternoon, after further rehearsal in the morning, and recorded by the BBC in front of invited-back ticket-holders denied the Mahler the previous evening. About 400 people were present who were asked to sit as far back as possible in the Hall
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