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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.3 in F op.90 [35:48]*
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Overture [09:52]**
Tannhäuser: Overture [14:34]**
Symphony Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio, Baden-Baden*, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra**/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 1958*, 1954**
VOX 7802 [60:16]

My mother never quite got over it when my sister virtually furnished her new house from the local “Collectables”, “buying up all the junk I’ve been throwing out year after year”. The record industry is finding a new use for the records that had fallen out of the bottom of the market: turning them into “Collectables”. Already when I started dipping my toes into the record world, the Vox Boxes of the past that had bundled together sandpapery recordings of just about everything were being recycled as the supplements to glossy but cheap volumes in the “Great Composers” series, to be sold at newspaper kiosks. While Music for Pleasure were drawing upon old EMI recordings to drive the likes of Fidelio and Allegro out of business, with their mysterious orchestras conducted by Henry Havagesse and Fred Yoonohoo. The Turnabout label did bring back some Vox issues, including Horenstein’s Bruckner and Mahler. Horenstein’s Brahms found few takers in those days – there wasn’t a cycle but there was a no.1 as well as this third. But of course, Horenstein was still alive and his many admirers were dreaming of the day when a major company would take him up and he could set down his repertoire with great orchestras in fine sound.

As far as Brahms 3 is concerned, this is all we’ve got. And I must say the beginning does take me back to the days when the first two chords of this symphony distorted and you wondered if your needle was going to fly off when the whole orchestra came in. You’ll also notice that in the second chord the trumpet dominates quite blatantly. I don’t know if he was the one that put up the money, but he got a microphone all to himself for whatever reason and blares away during all the tutti passages. You will also notice that the strings are hardly unanimous in their enunciation of the principal theme. But, before you turn away, you will also notice that there is a quite extraordinary passionate commitment to it all. Horenstein takes a swiftish tempo and does not dawdle during the yodelling wind themes, presenting a challenging, urgent view which is quite overwhelming in the coda.

The Andante, on the other hand, is taken spaciously and all but grinds to a halt as Horenstein analyzes the doleful impact of those repeated notes spread around the orchestra. The third movement is also slow. Furthermore, there is a phrase towards the end of the main theme which seems to interest him so much that he slows down every time it comes. But since he doesn’t go back to his original tempo the music gets slower with every reappearance of this theme and is very slow indeed by the end. The trio is rather fascinating at this tempo, though the orchestra don’t immediately cotton on to what he wanted. These two middle movements are often sumptuously phrased and clearly deeply felt, but they are rather odd all the same.

The finale is more in line with Horenstein’s later reputation. Fairly broad, it has a rugged energy and an impressive rhythmic grip. You may be wondering how all this adds up, and I’m wondering too. It’s assuredly not a “safe” recommendation, but if you think a “dangerous” recommendation might be more exciting, give it a go.

You’ll get a terrific Meistersinger overture. The Bamberg Orchestra was a better band, if only slightly, and the recording is actually better balanced and quite reasonable for its date. I suppose recording in mono meant that there weren’t any spare microphones to stick in front of the trumpet. Horenstein starts quite broadly but with a very articulated, buoyant style. He doesn’t daisy-pick in the love music and forges on as the apprentices come back on the scene. In spite of the old recording the contrapuntal details are perfectly clear and there is an almost Bachian joyousness as the threads are gathered together for the final pages. The cymbal crash is thrilling and after this Horenstein broadens slightly for an emphatic close.

Tannhäuser is almost as fine. The opening is mobile rather than solemn, but Horenstein luxuriates as the strings enter. The trombone seems a little weak as he takes up the theme, but evidently Horenstein didn’t want to give the game away too soon, for he is immensely powerful when this theme returns at the end. After a promising start the Venusberg is vital rather than orgiastic, but it too builds up and propels the listener towards an overwhelming final statement of the pilgrims’ music.

Horenstein never wanted to be thought of as a Bruckner and Mahler specialist. Yet outside those composers he tended to offer an interesting individual take on the music rather than a definitive view. Still, as “Collectables” go, this is, well, collectable.

Christopher Howell




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