Here at last is the official issue of Jascha Horenstein's BBC studio recording
of Mahler's late masterpiece, made under ideal conditions a year before his
death. The BBC Northern Symphony had never played the work before so Horenstein
was given time to rehearse them thoroughly. The result is an expansive
performance that repays repeated listening because the degree of space he
gives the music, allied to the familiar fingerprint of modular tempi to suit
entire movements, takes us deeper than ever.
Horenstein's view of this work is dark and tinged with tragedy. Through this
first song the tread is heavier, the weight of the world greater, the mood
reflective. To some this might take a little getting used to, but persistence
brings rewards, not least in the change of mood with the third stanza "Das
firmament blaut ewig" ("The heavens are ever blue") and the opportunity
Horenstein takes to mark the pizzicati in the passage while the singer is
silent. Evidence of his care for inner detail allied to outer structure.
After such a performance of the first song the second comes across colder
than usual, closer to despair. The phrasing of the oboe is exemplary in its
lamenting quality as Horenstein continues his deep analysis. Then Alfreda
Hodgson's first entry is unobtrusive, her voice darker, more earthy. There
is some surge of feeling at "Bald werden die verwelkten goldnen Blatter"
but no real warmth, so I think Horenstein wants to stress the utter loneliness
in the poem.
In "Von der Jugend" Mitchinson lightens his approach but Horenstein's held-back
accompaniment reveals more angst beneath the surface. In the fourth song
Hodgson's opening is as good an example as any of her feeling for words and
Horenstein gives her just the space she needs. You are also aware that this
song has three parts and I like the half-tone Hodgson adopts at the end where
Horenstein closes the movement as you would expect, a real awareness of winding
down. He is also wonderful at the chamber-like textures, helped by the closer-in
The opening of "Der Abschied" is doom-laden, promising a heavy journey. Hodgson
enters almost with fear, as if she is going to cause the world to end if
she sings loudly. The passage describing the birds shows a conductor steeped
in the Viennese tradition of that time and what conducting and playing there
is around "Es wehet kuhl im Schatten meiner fichten", the words almost whispered
by Hodgson and the feeling of rapt expectation extraordinary. This remarkable
performance was done in one take, as if it was in front of a live audience,
and I don't think I have ever heard passages where Mahler pares everything
down to a few instruments taken so slowly and with such concentration.
It's hard to find words adequate to describe the final pages. Taken at as
slow a tempo as could be dared, soloist, conductor and orchestra sustain
a line that is unutterably moving. Indeed, there are passages in this last
song where time almost stands still. According to John Mitchinson, most of
the orchestra were in tears at the close.
The remastered sound from the BBC master tape is analytical, tailored for
broadcast, accentuating Horenstein's way with the chamber textures where
every detail is exposed by his gimlet eye. The orchestra play well but don't
have the corporate elan of one of the international ensembles. However, surface
sheen is not everything and I cannot recommend this recording too highly.
Here is a performance where both the soloists balance each other and are
matched with a conductor whose contribution is one of the greatest ever.
Admirers of Horenstein will also be fascinated to hear a brief interview
with him in which he speaks of his relationship to the piece and also to
read the splendid notes by Joel Lazar, Horenstein's assistant at the time,
who has much to tell us about the working methods of this remarkable conductor.
Five years after the Horenstein studio recording the BBC Northern Symphony
performed the work "live" at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester with Mitchinson
again the tenor, but this time with Janet Baker as his partner and Raymond
Leppard conducting. We can speculate on how much Horenstein's influence was
still with these players but it would be nice to think many carried the
experience of working with him that night.
Leppard presses forward in the first song and I like the cackling woodwind
against the opening horn figure each time it re-appears. For his part Mitchinson
is encouraged to be more dynamic and energetic this time. It may be the presence
of an audience that makes him project more but the "ape on the graves" section
receives more hysteria than it did with Horenstein. He and Leppard are very
perky in "Von der Jugend" with a lightening of tone after what has preceded.
Mitchinson is certainly freer to smile more than he did under the rather
glum Horenstein because Leppard is a more approachable character with less
early-century Viennese angst. Again in the fifth song Mitchinson and Leppard
go for energy. I found the delivery of the passage starting at "Ein Vogel
singt im baum" contained a real Wunderhorn quality reminiscent of the Third
Symphony's second and third movements.
When Janet Baker makes her first appearance in the second song we are in
the presence of one of the greatest of all Mahler singers and her interpretation
is formed from the first word with a tone so full it has the effect of shifting
the entire attitude of this movement to something more than just a description
of loneliness to the act of being lonely. Listen in "ein kalter wind beugt
ihre Stengel nieder" ("an icy wind blows down their stems") how she
halves her tone for the last words and likewise, after the outpouring at
"Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen" how she tempers this in the
same way at "mild aufzutrocken" ("my bitter tears") with almost a whisper.
Few singers can describe the young girls playing by the river in "Von der
Schoenheit" like Baker either. An openness of heart is the best description
and notice the pause on the word "Neckerein" ("teasingly").
Sheer weight of tone is rather missing from the tolling at the start of "Der
Abschied". It could have done with a little extra funeral tread for Leppard
is less good on tragic weight in this work. But when Baker enters reservations
must be put aside. There is an immense contrast between the last time we
heard her and now, and this ability to cover a whole world of meaning is
one of the many reasons why she is so great in this work. The recording balance
favours the winds and they play with character, if not with the cultured
tone you would expect from one of the great Mahler ensembles. But that was
true also of their account for Horenstein. "Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte
ihm den Trunk" ("He dismounted and gave me the parting cup") is a token for
what is to come since Baker's account of the final part of this work surpasses
everything she does and that was formidable enough.
If forced to choose between these two BBC issues I would opt for Horenstein.
But Janet Baker is too good to miss. So, for the small extra price of the
bargain Leppard recording, why not have both versions of this timeless
See also Tony Duggans complete
survey of recordings of Das Lied