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Symphony No.7 in E Minor
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Conducted by Jascha Horenstein
(Recorded "live" at the Royal Albert Hall on August 29th 1969)
BBC Legends BBCL 4051-2  [74.53]

Under Horenstein the opening of Mahler's Seventh is deeply imposing with a real funeral tread in the strings, straight out of the world of Fifth Symphony. Notice too the high woodwind squealing out of the texture. As ever Horenstein shows himself master of the total sound. In the Exposition he also relates the tempo changes to each other, knitting the exposition together with a sure grip. He also manages tenderness and sweep in the second subject. Then, in the development section, there's palpable inner tension that Horenstein somehow seems to carry over from the start and which will distinguish this reading of the first movement to the very end. All evidence of Horenstein's ability to "read" an entire movement and then deliver it as if in one "breath". At the recapitulation note the slight pause before it begins, like a "pause for breath", then beneath the earthy trombone solo the presence of a lower string "cushion" that I think is unique in all versions that has the effect of darkening the colour of this extraordinary music even more. Horenstein's delivery of this passage is not pretty, of course. It's reminiscent of the trombone solo passages in the first movement of the Third Symphony and shows a natural grandeur. So complete is Horenstein's grasp of every aspect of this first movement that the end is genuinely triumphant, the feeling that you have lived through something important.

The second movement's opening has about it an analytical quality but this then gives way to a freer treatment of the main material and the Trios. Horenstein seems to see these as much lighter passages in tone than many of his colleagues, recognising the need for contrast. Overall he is a full two minutes quicker than Abbado and Bernstein, for example, but the music never sounds rushed anywhere. Indeed, it sounds all too natural with wit and irony that are a joy to hear. The second Trio then slows down a little, allowing Horenstein to explore the possibilities of the music. In the Scherzo that follows Horenstein favours a slower tempo with the shadows taken care of by his amazing ear for lower registers and this is helped by the large acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Mood rather than effects seem to be Horenstein's philosophy where the temptation must be always to go for the latter. But Horenstein wasn't that kind of conductor. He always looked beyond the obvious and since this "one off" concert performance is available to us we can appreciate how the benefits of this kind of approach accrue over time.

The second Nachtmusik is quite quick. More andante, which I think is right in that it suits the concept of a serenade better. I would also make the suggestion that since this music doesn't represent Mahler at his very best it might be better if it doesn't detain us too long. To those who like their Mahler indulgent I would point to this movement needing to provide a bridge to the finale, which under Horenstein it certainly does. It makes his view of the last movement a natural conclusion to the work, marking the end of our journey out of Night and into Day more successfully than most. You do not have the feeling that this movement has come out of nowhere, which you can under lesser conductors. The fact that the orchestra also play it for all it's worth just adds the cherry to the icing on the cake, with the momentum kept up to a degree other conductors van only dream of. At the close the threads are pulled together and the very end, horns blazing like a great shout of joy, means you will want to join in the applause.

Those strange, haunted souls for whom perfection of sound and playing come before everything will moan that this version falls short of their definition of the acceptable. Don't listen to them. Of course it's a pity Horenstein never recorded this work commercially. There are rough patches in the playing, not least in the opening bars. However, it's hard to believe a studio recording would have bettered this in anything other than security of playing and, of course, recorded sound which I'll leave to Tony Movshon to describe in comparison with the best known previous CD issues of this great performance.

Do not let any shortcomings of playing or recorded sound put you off. This is simply one of the greatest Mahler Sevenths on the market whichever version of it you choose from.


Tony Duggan


Technical appraisal and comparison by Tony Movshon:

BBC Legends has done a great service to Horenstein admirers by issuing many of his most important broadcast performances. Past issues include performances of Bruckner 5, 8, and 9 from the late 60s and early 70s, and the famous 1959 Mahler 8th. All of these issues are technically superior to the various "bootleg" copies of these performances that appeared previously; all seem to be derived either from master tapes or from something closely derived from the masters. In some cases the improvements in sound have been extraordinary (e.g. the Mahler 8th), in other cases merely worthwhile.

I have been especially eager to hear the BBC Legends issue of Horenstein's 1969 Prom performance of the Mahler 7th. This darkly colored and subtle performance has been available on M&A, Descant, Intaglio, and other labels, but never in really good sound -- even the previous bootlegs of other Horenstein performances have been better, and the BBC Legends issues are *much* better. The overall sound on the M&A and Descant issues of the Mahler 7th is well enough balanced, but not completely clean (I believe but have not verified that the Intaglio is a direct copy of the Descant). There is some distortion, and it appears that the microphone placement for this recording was well back into the auditorium. As a result, the sound faithfully reproduces the boomy echo of the Albert Hall, as well as every rustle and cough from the audience, but doesn't do such a good job with the music. Other Horensteins recorded in the Albert Hall are much better miked (e.g. the Bruckner 5, and even the Mahler 8). The differences between Descant and M&A are quite subtle, with the M&A being perhaps a fraction brighter and a little rougher-sounding than the Descant.

Unfortunately, the BBC Legends Mahler 7 is not an improvement on these; in fact, it's distinctly worse. The sound obviously has the same defects of mike placement, but it is also very dull and muddy by comparison with the previous issues, especially in the right channel.

To check my impressions, I copied matched parts of each transfer into a computer and did some analysis. The dullness of the BBC transfer is immediately obvious when looking at the frequency spectra of matched sections of the recordings; moreover, the right channel of the BBC transfer takes a dive at around 2 kHz and the levels are about 8-10 dB below the right channel at higher frequencies. Interestingly, spectral analysis of all three of the Descant, M&A and BBC transfers reveals the "carrier" signals characteristic of broadcast tapes. It therefore seems that the new BBC issue does not derive from any kind of master tape, but instead -- like the M&A and the Descant -- from a tape made from a radio broadcast. The irony is, the tapes M&A and Descant used for their transfers are better than the BBC's own.

I recall hearing that the BBC could not find master tapes of some of the Horenstein performances they wished to issue. Unfortunately, this may be such a case.

The bottom line, of course, is not to bother with the BBC issue of this performance. You can hear it better on M&A or Descant/Intaglio. Sadly, it seems we may never hear it in truly good sound.

Tony Movshon

and Simon Foster adds:

In his fascinating sleeve notes for this glorious performance, Joel Lazar describes how Mahler's Seventh Symphony suffered from a lack of understanding and appreciation as late as the mid 1960s, when the Mahler renaissance was already under way. In particular Deryck Cooke's description of the work, in 1960, as "unquestionably the Cinderella among Mahler symphonies" now strikes today's enthusiasts as somewhat wide of the mark.

Yet for those of us who happened to be coming new to Mahler during the sixties and early seventies, this attitude seemed entirely understandable. Having discovered the extraordinary yet contrasted joys to be encountered in the earlier symphonies from conductors such as Kubelik, Haitink, Bernstein and Horenstein himself, the experience of coming anew to the seventh left many of us with furrowed brows and a strong feeling of puzzlement. Solti's (then) highly regarded version and Klemperer's ponderous traversal only seemed to make matters worse.

The summer of 1969 saw many remarkable events. Man landed on the Moon on July 20th and the Woodstock Festival opened on August 15th. Exactly two weeks later at a promenade concert at London's Royal Albert Hall, Jascha Horenstein gave a performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony which, although not widely realised at the time except to the audience and fortunate British radio listeners, finally dispelled the myth of the symphony's undeserved reputation.

As Tony Movshon points out in his review for Music on the Web, twenty years later, off-air transfers started to become available on a number of labels, initially from Descant (catalogue number 02). This and the much more widely available version on Music & Arts - CD-727 (1992) - proved to be something of a revelation to Mahlerians. Like much of his music, Mahler's Seventh remained somewhat enigmatic and open to interpretation, but at last here was a performance that 'felt right' and answered many questions.

Tony Duggan's expert review describes Horenstein's performance extremely well. In particular his final paragraph 'Do not let any shortcomings of playing or recorded sound put you off. This is simply one of the greatest Mahler Sevenths on the market whichever version of it you choose from' should remain an ultimate watchword.

When Tony Movshon originally alerted a major Mahler discussion group (on the web) with his concerns about the BBC Legends transfer, I confess I was sceptical. The BBC Legends series had consistently provided considerably superior sound over previous issues for Horenstein's live recordings. The BBC's automatic access to the original masters (rather than air-checks) tended to be assumed by collectors. In addition to the BBC Mahler Eighth which Tony Movshon rightly admires, there is also the greatly improved Das Lied von der Erde (BBCL 4042-2) which easily trumps the Music & Arts version (CD-728).

But there can be no doubt that Tony Movshon is correct in describing the new BBC Legends Mahler Seventh as distinctly inferior to the Music & Arts.

Not having access to the kind of computerised technical equipment available to Tony, I relied instead on the evidence of my own ears. The Music & Arts CD offers a bright, reasonably detailed sound picture as would be heard by a promenader standing in the Arena of the Royal Albert hall. I am not so aware of the microphones being 'well back in the auditorium' as Tony is. I find plenty of impact and fidelity of timbre in the M&A transfer.

Perhaps the BBC Legends engineer believed that the brightness of the recording would be offensive to modern listeners. If so, the end result has become entirely 'inoffensive' in every meaning of the word. (I suspect, incidentally, that the tapes used by BBC Legends and M&A are ultimately from the same source). In quieter passages the new smoothness can be quite attractive - but even here the loss of impact does indeed create a heightened feeling of distance between listener and orchestra.

From mezzo forte upwards, everything increasingly sounds duller. The very immediacy that was part and parcel of the wonderment created for the listener in the performance on M&A is largely lost. Sadly, by tampering with the frequencies, BBC Legends has also altered the timbre of individual instruments and orchestral sections. In the first movement at around 19.30 all the percussion instruments are severely compromised including the side drum, bass drum, struck tambourine and cymbal (both crashed and struck).

In the final movement the reduction in right-hand channel fidelity (perhaps in an unnecessary effort to 'tame' the trumpets) has the inevitable result of artificially dragging the trumpets towards the left-hand channel, thereby compromising the stereo image.

What a shame! I strongly urge the BBC to further check for the best source as possible and remaster this recording. Try to get hold of the M&A CD if you can, even if you have to miss out on Joel Lazar's excellent notes, in return for M&A's insistence that the performance took place in the Royal Festival Hall! The BBC Legends is easily available, but be prepared to be not quite so involved in the music-making as you should.


Simon Foster



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