Jascha Horenstein was a conductor who was especially identified
with music of the Austro-German tradition, particularly that
of Bruckner and Mahler. His forays into the Scandinavian repertoire
were comparatively rare but, in my experience, always telling.
There is, for example, a trenchant live reading of the Sibelius
Second Symphony, dating from 1956, contained in a fascinating
Music and Arts boxed set of performances he gave in France in
the 1950s and 1960s (see review
His 1969 commercial recording of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony
is one that I’ve long considered to be among the very finest
accounts of this masterpiece, not least for the incomparable
performance of the famous side drum cadenza in the first movement,
where the New Philharmonia’s Alfred Dukes, presumably with
Horenstein’s active encouragement, realises the disruptive
intent of that extraordinary passage more completely than any
other player in my experience. Sadly, I don’t believe this
classic performance, originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD2023),
is currently available. There is, however, a BBL Legends recording
of the Fifth, dating from 1971 and also with the New Philharmonia.
That’s very good (see review
but a different side-drummer was on duty that night and his cadenza
is more conventional and nowhere near as shattering an experience
as that offered by Dukes.
In the last years of his life Horenstein was a quite frequent
guest of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic)
and several excellent performances by this partnership have already
appeared on BBC Legends. This latest instalment is equally welcome.
The performance of the Nielsen Symphony was given in Manchester’s
Town Hall - why not the Free Trade Hall, I wonder? - and it’s
a very stimulating one. The first movement is strong and exhilarating,
with exciting forward propulsion. Even in the passages where
Nielsen writes in a more relaxed vein Horenstein maintains the
tension well. The BBC orchestra responds ardently to Horenstein’s
direction though it has to be said that occasionally polish is
sacrificed as a result, notably by the brass section. Nonetheless,
there’s nothing in the playing that should deter purchasers
and I’d much rather have a sense of players giving their
all than hear a perfect but cool, edited studio account.
The calm of the second movement is welcome after the fire of
its predecessor. Horenstein controls things very well and from
6:10 onwards, when the two wordless vocal lines are added to
the texture, the music glows beautifully. In the finale the big
tune surges along confidently. Horenstein’s reading is
spirited and purposeful but, as elsewhere in the symphony, he
is satisfyingly responsive to the more relaxed passages. This
is, I think, a symphony of the Great Outdoors and by the end
I felt exhilarated by the way in which Horenstein lays it out.
I’m delighted to have a Horenstein recording of this life-affirming
symphony and hearing it makes me sorry that he never essayed,
it seems, Nielsen’s Fourth.
The very next day Horenstein and the orchestra crossed the Pennines
from Lancashire into Yorkshire to give a concert, which included
what appears to be the only performance Horenstein ever gave
of the Sibelius Fifth. That’s quite remarkable, especially
when this recording shows that he had an evident affinity with
the score. One wonders why he never gave any other performances.
Perhaps no one had ever asked him to do so. If so, that’s
a great pity.
His reading of the first movement is direct and taut and I felt
there was a strong sense of the music’s architecture. The
performance generates an appropriate degree of tension and there’s
no shortage of Nordic atmosphere. As the music gathers more and
more momentum Horenstein judges the pacing very well and the
movement ends in a blaze of fiery energy. The second movement
is, on the surface, much simpler in conception but Horenstein’s
interpretation is often quite tense. He’s very successful
in the finale, which gets off to an urgent start. Much of the
music in this movement is majestic and Horenstein does this very
well without ever becoming grandiose. His performance has grip
and integrity and I was impressed by the unforced power and nobility
with which he invests the final peroration. So too, it seems,
were the audience who accord the performance an enthusiastic
ovation. It’s interesting too observe that the previous
night’s Mancunian audience, though appreciative of the
Nielsen performance, were not as overt in their enthusiasm. Perhaps
that’s because the music was less familiar to them than
was the Sibelius to the Yorkshire folk the next night. Perhaps
too the music was more familiar to the orchestra for their playing
of Sibelius sounds more assured.
To round off the disc we hear a short appreciation of Horenstein
by his friend, the composer, Robert Simpson. The date of recording
is not stated but I infer that the talk was given very shortly
after Horenstein’s death. The original broadcast included
some musical examples, excised here. Simpson pays tribute to
Horenstein’s “direct and honest humanity”,
which, he says, came out in the way he made music. Simpson says
that Horenstein never put a gloss on any music he was performing
and he praises the “nobility and faithfulness of his [musical]
vision.” I’d say that these judgements are vindicated
in the two fine performances that are included on this CD.
The performances are reported in decent radio sound, which is
perfectly acceptable, given that the recordings are nearly forty
years old. Admirers of this fine conductor should not hesitate
to add this CD to their collection.