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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123* [83’43”]
Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano); Norma Procter (contralto); Richard Lewis (tenor); Kim Borg (bass); BBC Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No 8 in B minor, D759 “Unfinished”** [25’07”]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Eine Faust-Ouvertüre ***[11’54”]
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Recorded: *BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, 23 February 1961; ** Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 September 1971; *** University of Salford, England 23 April 1972 ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4150-2 [66’48” + 54’18”]



 

Here is another highly important release from BBC Legends. This label has, almost single-handedly, restored and indeed advanced the posthumous reputation of Jascha Horenstein (1899-1973) in recent years and this pair of CDs carries on that excellent work.

The Wagner overture, not perhaps one of his greatest works, was played in the same concert that included Liszt’s Faust Symphony, already released on this label (BBCL 4118-2). Horenstein does it tautly and dramatically.

Of much greater musical interest, I think, is the reading of the Schubert symphony with which Horenstein opened what was to be his last appearance at the Henry Wood Promenade concerts. As is usually the case with these Horenstein releases the liner notes are by Joel Lazar, who I believe was Horenstein’s personal assistant towards the end of the conductor’s career. Lazar comments that this performance of the symphony was”extraordinarily detailed” and I wouldn’t disagree for a second. However, Horenstein’s was an art that conceals art and the listener is not aware of attention to detail. Rather, the music just “goes” and sounds spontaneous and right. The first movement unfolds seamlessly. Clearly Horenstein has the performance under firm control but it sounds as if the hand on the tiller is a light one. That, to me, is the mark of a master conductor. The second movement is unusually spacious. It’s interesting to note that Horenstein takes 13’21” whereas Karl Böhm, in his 1966 studio recording (DG) requires 11’31”. Yet Horenstein doesn’t let the music drag. There’s a sense of purpose in the louder passages while the quieter pages have a dignified tranquillity. Overall this is a very impressive reading of the symphony, enhanced by responsive playing by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The main work offered here is Beethoven’s mighty Missa Solemnis in a studio recording. It doesn’t sound as if an audience was present – there’s no applause – but the performance has the feel of a ‘live’ event. Joel Lazar tells us that Horenstein was so determined that things should be right that he proposed to the BBC that he should take additional (and presumably unpaid) piano rehearsals both with the soloists and with the chorus. This amount of preparation paid off for the performance is notable, among many things, for the satisfying observance of such crucial matters as dynamics, accents etc.

The solo team is a strong one. To my ears Kim Borg sometimes doesn’t quite sing in the centre of the note (the opening of the Agnus Dei is a case in point) but generally he provides a firm, sonorous foundation to the quartet. Norma Proctor is reliability personified and she sings with a consistently round and pleasing tone. Richard Lewis, who sometimes sounds to be somewhat backwardly balanced, sings with his customary sensitivity. Best of all is Teresa Stich-Randall who with her silvery, incisive voice delivers at all the key points and soars easily and impressively.

Having sung in several performances of this work I know what an enormous challenge it is for the chorus. I was impressed with the contribution of the BBC Chorus here. The male voices project strongly, for example at the start of the Gloria, and later in the same movement the tenors ring out tellingly at ‘Quoniam tu solus’ (CD 1, track 2, 10’54”). Indeed, throughout the performance the tenor line, though often cruelly demanding, comes through very well indeed. In the interests of gender balance I must also say that the ladies of the chorus acquit themselves very well, the sopranos seemingly undaunted by the unreasonable tessitura of much of their music. Not even the hardest two pages in the entire work, the viciously fast fugue on ’Et vitam venturi saeculi’ (pages 88 and 89 in the Novello vocal score), find the choir wanting.

Holding everything together, and on a firm rein, is Horenstein. The recording doesn’t always allow internal detail to come through with complete clarity but it is evident that he had taken tremendous care to get things right. As with the Schubert, he achieves this while letting the music flow naturally. Thus, for example, the great tumult of praise with which the Gloria concludes is joyful and exuberant, as it should be.

I have one reservation, which for some listeners may be a major drawback. The tempo marking for the opening of the Credo is Allegro ma non troppo. It seems to me that Horenstein rather overdoes the second part of that instruction for his speed is as broad as I’ve heard and it sounds rather laboured (and must have been hard work for the chorus). I make the speed about minim=90. By contrast, Leonard Bernstein in his 1979 live Concertgebouw reading (DG) is at about minim=108 and in his hands the music has greater vitality. Horenstein reaches ‘Et incarnatus est’ at 5’33” whereas Bernstein arrives at the same point at 4’08” That said, once I’d listened a few times I thought I could appreciate what Horenstein is up to. He has his eyes set on the reappearance of this music later on (13’32” in this performance) which leads straight into the first, slower fugue on ‘Et vitam venture saeculi’. The pulse should remain constant at this point (and does) and thereby Horenstein achieves clarity and a sense of purpose in the fugue. Bernstein’s Dutch choir are fully up to the challenge of his faster tempo here, however.

That reservation apart, I find Horenstein’s interpretation of the whole Mass very convincing and satisfying. Apart from the passage I’ve mentioned, the Credo is splendid. The soloists excel in the ‘Et incarnatus’ and sing with real bite in ‘Crucifixus’. The closing pages of this movement are excellent. Horenstein achieves a hushed intensity at the start of the Sanctus while the Benedictus, graced by a sweet-toned violin solo from the orchestra’s, uncredited, leader, is very well done. Incidentally, in the Sanctus Horenstein is one of those conductors who allot the ferociously difficult ‘Pleni sunt cœli’ section to the soloists rather than the chorus. I think he’s right to do so, if only in the interests of clarity. The opening of the ‘Agnus Dei’ is controlled and built most impressively while the pacing of the allegretto vivace is just right.

Overall this is a powerful and imposing reading of Beethoven’s great masterpiece. Since the Schubert also receives a performance of distinction the attractions of this release are very great. The mono recording of the Beethoven is quite acceptable though a little too obviously studio-confined. The stereo recordings of the other two pieces open up more convincingly, especially the Schubert. Joel Lazar’s note is valuable. As usual there are no texts or translations. And though the text of the Mass is probably familiar to most collectors I do wish BBC Legends would reconsider their policy as it’s the one consistent blot on a series that is of immense importance and value to collectors.

This distinguished release will be self-recommending to admirers of Jascha Horenstein. I think it’s also of great interest to the general collector and I recommend it highly. I do hope BBC Legends will let us have many more examples of this great conductor at work.

John Quinn



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