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Antonin DVORAK
Symphony No.9 in E Minor "From The New World"

Leos JANACEK

Sinfonietta

Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
(Recorded in 1952 and 1955)
VOX LEGENDS VOX 7805
[72.36]

Vox

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 mannered.

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 become histrionic.

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.

Tony Duggan




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