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