When I first began listening seriously to classical
music in the late 1960s money was tight and LPs expensive. So in addition
to BBC Radio 3 and a local Gramophone Society I relied on the county
library for my musical explorations. Fortunately this had a very large
record library, the largest in Britain, so I was lucky. At some point
in the past one librarian must have bought the entire Vox LP catalogue
which meant that the name Jascha Horenstein became important to me from
early on. Horenstein's contract with Vox was the only long-term contract
he ever had so if you knew your Vox releases you knew your Horenstein.
His association with them began around 1952, straddled
the mono and stereo eras, took in the entire decade and blended the
familiar with the unfamiliar as the list at the back of the liner notes
for this issue shows. Of course there were other recordings of all those
works that Horenstein recorded for Vox available on those library shelves
and I heard those too. In fact looking back it was noticing the differences
between them that stimulated my early musical appreciation.
It is hard to know why I kept being drawn back to Horenstein's
versions, though. It couldn't have been the orchestras he was given
to record with. More often than not in terms of orchestral performance
Horenstein's recordings would be left sounding decidedly second and
third rate owing to the fact that the Vox production budget didn't stretch
to the great metropolitan ensembles. That much I also learned to spot.
Also the Vox recorded sound was conspicuous for its lack of glamour
whether in mono, as here, or in stereo. This all probably led to the
fact that the Horenstein LPs had far less date stamps on their tickets
than recordings of the same works by others. Herbert Von Karajan's were
always being replaced through being borrowed so many times, for example.
At this time the Karajan "factory" was also in full production
but even then I can remember being struck by what I perceived to be
too great an emphasis on polish and refinement when compared with Horenstein,
notably in Beethoven and Bruckner. Maybe it was then that my suspicion
of Karajan's recordings first showed itself.
Many people found the drawbacks of Horenstein's Vox
recordings a complete turn-off and many do now. I found it at first
a challenge but then, after a time, more of an enrichment. I could listen
through any shortcomings of playing and recording, which frequently
only came to heard in comparison anyway, and penetrate to what I found
to be a rare truth beneath that, even with my then untutored ears, shone
out more brightly than the surface refinements of Karajan or Solti or
Reiner. Horenstein soon, for me, came to be in the same pantheon as
Klemperer and Barbirolli in that he seemed to concentrate on what mattered
most - the music with clarity of vision that could sometimes hurt. No
exaggeration to say that it was probably Horenstein who also taught
me the difference between beautiful music and music played beautifully.
So circumstances dictate that on record he is not the conductor for
those who cannot be bothered to listen beneath playing that does not
conform to more exacting standards. Neither is he the conductor for
the thrill seeker or those who like their music making safe and well
Over the years, as I became wiser and more experienced,
not to say more tutored, I came to hear more in Horenstein's interpretations,
particularly as I also then heard him in broadcasts and in later recordings
for Readers Digest and Unicorn. I was also able to explain what it was
in his conducting that I so admired.
- A terraced, chamber-like sound palette where each section is balanced
equally but never loses its identity: an orchestra the sum of its
sections and sub-sections rather than one organic piece, joins and
edges allowed to show and contrast.
- A grasp of the structure across the entire piece as well as within
individual movements and how each fits one with another to make a
satisfying whole without subsuming emotion and expression, rather
setting them in relief.
- A healthy respect for, but not a slavery to, the passing moment
often achieved by modular tempi set at the start, barely deviating
and then only gradually and without jolting.
- The ability to manipulate material over the longest of spans to
encompass, where appropriate, within the broadest of paragraph parameters
of despair that never become self-indulgent and ecstasy that never
This latter aspect is most obvious in his conducting
of Mahler and Bruckner and his early Vox recordings of Mahler's First
and Ninth Symphonies and Bruckner's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies (all
available on CD) were the means whereby I learned those works and I
could not have had better teachers. This long-breathed approach means
that his own emotional compass points, narrower than some of his colleagues
and which can sometimes lead to him being labelled dour, are kept in
mind by the listener allowing all shades in between to be more deeply
appreciated because they are heard in the round.
Horenstein was able to bend his distinctive voice into
whatever composer he interpreted and so always remain himself, art concealing
the art. Not the last word, of course. No interpreter has that ability.
But Horenstein never did anything without good reason.
Vox have been reissuing on CD all their Horenstein
recordings for some years now and I reviewed four from their last tranche
during 2000. Now we have four more of which this particular issue must
come first because the recording of Dvorak's "New World"
Symphony was Horenstein's first recording for Vox in 1952. Interestingly
I don't remember this one from my youth and I think that for many it
will be the first time of hearing. It's a fascinating version, very
enjoyable, a real demonstration of Horenstein's ability to smile and
relax which his wonderful recordings of Strauss Family music for Readers
Digest (later Chesky) demonstrated admirably.
The first movement has a discrete flexibility, seamlessly
rendered, that can take in driving power, delicate detail and all points
in between. The basic recording balance exposes the woodwind detail
clearly and allows you to hear string articulations that are carefully
prepared. In the second movement Horenstein's very direct, unfussy treatment
of the big cor anglais theme is typical of him, as also is the general
handling of the great melodies this movement is full of. Listen also
to the finely managed brass crescendo at the start. Horenstein never
gives in to the "pleading" quality you sometimes hear in some
of the more sentimental passages here. In the third movement I was struck
by the slightly slower tempo for the trio section and note the very
slight prominence given to the bassoon, a typical Horenstein imprint
in his zeal for a "top to bottom" sound. Again and again he
delights with subtle gear changes. The last movement sets a steady allegro
with some nice Viennese horns biting through the texture but this movement
is full of incident and drama and it is so good to hear music you think
you know intimately come up sounding new. Note too the single cymbal
struck with a stick rather than two instruments struck together as normally.
I cannot pretend that this version could ever replace
more recent stereo versions. The recording quality is beginning to show
its age in that it is a little rusty sounding and the Vienna Symphony
Orchestra of 1952 have some way to go before their later high standards
of tone and ensemble. But they are with Horenstein all the way and are
a pleasure throughout. An alternative to your more recent versions of
this perennially lovely work, I suggest.
The Janacek Sinfonietta from three years later
is not as successful. This must have been one of the first recordings
of the work and on this evidence I firstly have to wonder just how familiar
the orchestra was with the piece, so poorly played and apparently under-rehearsed
is it. Maybe their unfamiliarity has something to do with the extraordinarily
slow tempo Horenstein adopts for the first movement and, even more damagingly,
for its reprise at the end of the fifth. It isn't often I am pleased
when this work comes to an end but, with the grinding tempo and the
playing recorded here, the closing pages really are a trial. This music
is supposed to have been inspired by a gymnastics display. All I can
say is that the gymnasts here must have been some very big boys and
girls indeed. To my ears it appears to be almost half the correct tempo,
way off the Allegretto of Janacek's marking, and just lifeless. Was
Horenstein himself unsure of the music or unsure of how the orchestra
would manage to play the music? Whatever, the playing is decidedly below
par all through the performance. Just occasionally I even felt there
were passages in the middle movements where Horenstein might have been
trying to find some Brucknerian echoes which should tell you just how
distinctive this version is, albeit unconsciously. Details get exposed
in this recording by the slow tempi elsewhere that you may miss in other
versions. But the same applies to the human body during post mortem
examination. I said earlier that Horenstein never did anything without
a good reason and I stand by that. However, in the case of this Sinfonietta
I cannot at the moment work out what it is and I doubt I ever will.
Horenstein was a great admirer of Janacek and maybe later and with a
better orchestra his ideas on this work would be better served. But
this version must be for Horenstein "completists" only, I'm
afraid. And even they will shake their heads, as I did.
Enjoy a fresh, engaging and intelligent performance
of the Dvorak in acceptable mono sound. Prepare to be puzzled and perplexed
and by a very pedestrian Janacek.