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Various orchestras conducted by Jascha Horenstein. Recorded between 1928 & 1962
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: November 2020
CD No: PROFIL PH19014 (10 CDs)
Duration: 12 hours 44 minutes
Mahler’s Third symphony was not heard in England until half a century after its composition when it was broadcast by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on 29 November 1947 with Kathleen Ferrier as contralto soloist. This important event can today be heard in a Testament transfer from acetate discs. The British public had no further opportunity to hear the music for thirteen years. On 28 February 1961 the first public performance in England was given at St Pancras Town Hall where the semi-amateur Polyphonia Orchestra was conducted by Bryan Fairfax. The orchestral playing was remarkably good and the evening was a revelation. On 16 November 1961 the first professional concert performance took place; Jascha Horenstein conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with the Highgate School Choir; Helen Watts was contralto soloist. This is the first item on the ten-disc Reference Recordings set. There are other Horenstein recordings of the work: a much-favoured Unicorn issue, also a very fine performance, remarkably well recorded, with the Orchestra of RAI Turin but it is a pleasure to experience again the music-making of that evening in London nearly sixty years ago. From the opening blaze of the horns where Summer triumphantly marches in, Horenstein sustains tense drama. The Scherzo is given with an appropriately equal share of humour and bitterness and the expansive Finale has great depth of feeling
Horenstein gives a truly great performance of Mahler’s First Symphony and the sound of this 1953 recording is clear and well-detailed. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra (titled Pro Musica as on the original Vox LPs) plays with feeling and fire. A gripping interpretation from the outset, the tense atmosphere with mysterious distant trumpets is beautifully caught and the return to this mood on the repeat is led into with great subtlety. Horenstein’s treatment of the Scherzo’s Trio section is expounded masterfully; Mahler requires the section to start slowly but asks for gradual increases of tempo and here it is judged so that at its close the speed is exactly the same as that at which the Scherzo returns. Few other conductors get this right. The following Funeral March gives a suitably dark effect with a touchingly beautiful central section. In the powerful Finale there is a thrilling moment of high drama as the conductor holds back before the climactic change from minor to major. Horenstein‘s concert performances also portrayed these features. Despite the more up-to-date sound the later Unicorn recording is less effective and I find it hard to listen to it knowing that eventually a horrific edit will come along, totally ruining Horenstein’s immaculate management of tempo.
Mahler is also represented by his Kindertotenlieder; not the expected Horenstein Vox version with Norman Foster but the historic 1928 recording with Heinrich Rehkemper. Although the orchestra has a very dated sound, Rehkemper’s voice reproduces clearly and is suitably balanced. This is a sensitive interpretation of poignant music; Rehkemper’s gentility in the final song is very touching.
Bruckner completed his Eighth Symphony in 1887. He substantially revised the first two movements for performance in 1890 but more or less left the other two alone. Others then made cuts and revisions and these are imported in the score edited by Leopold Nowak used here by Horenstein. This is unfortunate because in his earlier edition Robert Haas had already restored the lost music and in later performances it was the Haas edition that Horenstein preferred.
Nevertheless this Vox recording from 1954 presents an eloquent reading, not quite so clearly recorded as the Mahler but with much weight and power; in particular the performance unifies the many different aspects of the Finale.
Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is not paid much attention these days but Horenstein performed it frequently. The Paris Radio Symphony Orchestra supplies richness of string tone within a rather plain radio recording but the performance shows the conductor’s grasp of music that sounded very modern in its day. A disappointing Strauss Don Juan follows. The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra plays well enough but the Vox recording is unremarkable with extremely distant timpani. Things are a little better in Death and Transfiguration where the orchestra plays with appropriate feeling.
Apart from displaying Horenstein’s interpretational skills in symphonic music, there are examples of his abilities as accompanist. A real delight is the excellently recorded 1962 performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. Odessa-born David Oistrakh and Kiev-born Horenstein join the London Symphony Orchestra to give as ‘Scottish’ a performance of this delightful work as I can remember. They are not afraid to point the ‘Scotch Snap’ rhythm at every opportunity and I imagine they enjoyed doing so.
Ivry Gitlis was at the height of his long and greatly varied career when making Vox recordings in the 1950s. Born in 1922 he played and dwelt in many countries. In the Second World War he was in London, often performing for British soldiers and factory workers; subsequently he was soloist with most British orchestras. Of the many recordings he made in Europe those for Vox were in Vienna and here the bright elegant tone of his violin is ideal as he plays Bartók’s Concerto No.2 with flair and precision; he uses a more acerbic tone than usual – entirely suitable for the music.
Gitlis is still alive at 98 and this is also the age to which Vlado Perlemuter (born 1904) lived. He carried his career into later years and notably at the age of 89 gave recitals comprising all of Ravel’s solo piano works and it is no surprise that he interprets the G-major Piano Concerto with ease and flair. The Colonne
Orchestra provides an often-angry accompaniment; the transformation of their themes to whirling piano sequences has a steadying influence in the fierce outer movements. The Concerto for the Left-Hand has a similar pattern but there is relaxation in the slow-fast-slow structure where to their credit pianist and orchestra effectively manage the complex moments where Ravel combines slow and fast music.
Accompanied by the French National Radio Orchestra and recorded with more weight than clarity. Claudio Arrau gives an expressive performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. His relaxed shaping of the melodies is not always echoed by the orchestra. Horenstein has a more direct approach to Brahms and does not compromise. In all, a slightly wayward reading involving much freedom of tempo from the soloist.
One of the discs is shared by Stravinsky and Schoenberg; although in the early twentieth-century regarded as ‘modern’ composers both show their romantic side in these well-engineered Sudwestfunk recordings from 1956. The gentle opening movements of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite are captured atmospherically and the ‘Infernal Dance’ is full of violent detail with clear woodwind and a particularly forceful bass drum.
The richness of Stravinsky’s final scene is followed very suitably by the string-orchestra version of Schoenberg’s sextet Verklärte Nacht – a tone poem in sections relating to the five stanzas of Richard Dehmel’s moving poem of that name. Horenstein has the Sudwestfunk strings play with ideal warmth. The music is full of emotion but comforting rather than anxious – it would have been interesting to know how Schoenberg might have developed this rich Richard Strauss-like style had he not moved to the backwater of twelve-tone music. Next comes Schoenberg’s uncompromising Chamber Symphony No.1. It might be thought to merit comparison with Stravinsky’s neo-classical Symphony in C written a generation later but it does not have the spiky brightness of that quirky piece and although quite early (1906) this work finds Schoenberg well into atonality and the section described as ‘Scherzo’ is riotous rather than humorous. The recording clarifies everything well.
Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba are given majestic performances but the recording of the Sinfonietta lacks impact. Horenstein’s daringly slow tempo for the fanfarish outer movements needs greater force from timpani. All movements are taken broadly. A few sounds interrupt the start of the Finale suggesting that the transfer has been made from an imperfect LP. The sound of Taras Bulba is a little more colourful and the rather plain recording, which also reveals LP provenance, presents Horenstein’s powerful reading adequately.
Liszt is coupled with his exact contemporary Wagner. The sprawling Faust Symphony shows Liszt’s predilection for drama rather than form but to precede it with the Wagner’s Faust Overture is suitable. The 1956 Liszt recording allows the Sudwestfunk Orchestra to sound colourful; tenor soloist Ferdinand Koch and the sparingly used men’s choir are well balanced. Although known for his lengthy compositions, Wagner seems more compact by comparison and Horenstein’s interpretations of the Prelude to Lohengrin and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde sound well – the Bamberg Symphony being given decent sound.
On the final disc is an important reissue of Horenstein’s earlier Vox Beethoven Eroica. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra is given immensely powerful sound, ideally suited to Horenstein’s extremely measured speeds. This breadth of pace permits the achievement of much greater impact than is to be found in the conductor’s better-known 1957 Sudwestfunk stereo recording which sounds bland by comparison. Recorded some five years earlier (and incorrectly dated 1955 in the booklet) Horenstein’s Viennese version is unrelentingly powerful, moving purposefully forward with immensely forceful climaxes. The orchestral playing is vivid in nature and the horns in the demanding Trio section are superb. This is Horenstein at his most dynamic.