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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 3, Op 27 ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ (1911) [39:33]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1915) [35:18]
Robert Simpson talks about Jascha Horenstein, who died on 2 April 1973 (music extracts omitted) [5:41]
Alexandra Browning (soprano); Colin Wheatley (baritone)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Manchester Town Hall, 30 October 1970 (Nielsen); Sheffield City Hall, 31 October 1970. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL4249-2 [75:29]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

John Quinn  


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