RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895) [96:42]
Norma Proctor (alto); Denis Wick (trombone); William Lang (flügelhorn)
Ambrosian Singers; Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. July 1970, Barking Assembly Hall (or Fairfield Halls, Croydon?), London. ADD
German texts and English translations included
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDCD189 [42:21 + 54:21]
I wouldn’t describe myself as an audiophile. My listening equipment is, I believe, good quality without being state of the art (Roksan Kandy Mk III CD player and amplifier; KEF Q35 loudspeakers) and though I appreciate it when I hear a performance reproduced in really good sound the music is my prime consideration. However, in recent months I’ve been more than a little intrigued by reviews by several of my colleagues of a number of releases on the HDTT label and when Tony Duggan waxed lyrical about the HDTT release of Jascha Horenstein’s 1969 recording of Mahler’s First Symphony I really sat up and took notice. I’m not familiar with that recording but I esteem Horenstein greatly as a Mahler conductor and his recording of the Third Symphony has had a place of honour in my collection for many years. Towards the end of his review of the First Symphony Tony expressed the hope that HDTT would give the Horenstein recording of the Third the same treatment. Well, they have and here it is. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to review this latest offering from HDTT.
Readers who are familiar with Tony Duggan’s survey of the Mahler symphonies on disc will be aware that when he came to consider the Third Jascha Horenstein’s 1970 Unicorn recording was one of those that he placed right at the top of the tree. Though I haven’t heard every one of the recordings that Tony appraised in the 2006 revision of his survey I share his enthusiasm for the Barbirolli, Bernstein and Tennstedt versions. But, above all, I’m entirely at one with him in admiring this magnificent Horenstein performance.
In the early days of CD I’m sure many readers will recall, as I do, reading reviews of LP recordings transferred onto the new medium in which the reviewers spoke of the digital process allowing them to hear the music as if a veil had been removed or comparing the digitally reprocessed recordings to the effect seen when an old painting is cleaned. I think the effect here is comparable when one compares the Unicorn CDs (UKCD2006/7) (also on Brilliant Classics 99549) and this new HDTT version. I must hasten to say that I’ve always thought the Unicorn recording offers very fine reproduction. The sound achieved by Unicorn is atmospheric, detailed and rich but A/B comparisons of the two CD sets revealed that this new HDTT issue, transferred from a Unicorn 4-track tape, adds a new dimension of excitement, presence and realism.
For example, at the very start of the vast first movement the massed horns seem almost to leap out of the speakers. But, though the climaxes are hugely impressive in this transfer, what caught my attention time and again was the extra definition imparted to quiet passages. So, for example, the soft bass-drum tattoo at 1:00 into the first movement – and the soft tam-tam strokes that precede it – are impressively defined here.
The first movement, which lasts 33:09 in this performance, is a great musical kaleidoscope. Horenstein displays a superb grip on the music. He may not quite equal the headlong hedonism of Bernstein’s often intoxicating 1961 New York recording (SM2K 47 576) – who does? – for Horenstein’s feet are planted a little more firmly on the ground. However, even if there’s not as much Dionysian abandon as Bernstein brings to parts of this great March of Summer, Horenstein certainly doesn’t short change the listener and he has his own swagger when it matters. The attention to detail – rendered all the more obvious thanks to the clarity of the HDTT transfer - is quite superb but so too is the sweep of the music in his hands. This opening movement is a vast canvass, teeming with detail and cast by Mahler in a number of episodes. The greatest conductors – and Horenstein is certainly among their number – convey it in a single span, however, or seem to do so.
In this movement a few passages stood out in particular for me – and often they were the more delicate ones. One such was the section beginning at 5:13, where the refinement of the LSO’s playing is marvellous. Hereabouts John Georgiadis contributes a winning violin solo, a harbinger of several more delightful solos by him both in this movement and elsewhere. Shortly afterwards, at 6:38, Denis Wick takes centre-stage for the first of his crucial trombone solos and he does so most imposingly.
As the movement unfolded I appreciated more and more the sound quality. The highest woodwind swirls right down to the deepest string bass rumblings are all most truthfully and vividly reported. The listener could be sitting in a prime seat in the front stalls of a concert hall with first-rate acoustics. The great wash of sound at the climax between 13:45 and 14:02 is thrilling and immediately afterwards the horns peal out, seemingly across wide vistas, to superb effect. At this point I should say that throughout the whole symphony the LSO horn players cover themselves with glory. Horenstein and engineer Bob Auger ensure that the final climax of the movement (32:29) is a huge moment, after which Horenstein drives the LSO on in a collective dash for the finish line that is positively exhilarating.
One needs an aural breather after this and Mahler provides it with a relaxed, charming movement marked Tempo di Menuetto. Here Horenstein conjures playing of great delicacy and refinement form the LSO. Indeed, the movement has all the subtlety of chamber music. It’s striking how affectionate Horenstein is here after all the power that he’s unleashed in the first movement. Bob Auger’s recording reports all this expert music-making with wonderful clarity.
At the very start of III I wondered if the woodwind were too forwardly balanced. A comparison with the Unicorn CD suggests that although the balance is indeed forward the greater clarity of the HDTT transfer accentuates the fact, perhaps not to the music’s best advantage. I must say, however, that this isn’t something that bothered me unduly elsewhere in the performance. Horenstein prepares for the first appearance of the post horn solo quite superbly, the orchestra expertly balanced. When we hear the post-horn the effect is quite magical. I think this is for two reasons. Firstly the player, William Lang, is distanced most atmospherically. Secondly, and crucially, he plays the solos on a flügelhorn, with just the right amount of vibrato. It’s a wonderful passage and though it comes across excellently on the Unicorn CD it’s even better here. The feather-light accompaniment from the LSO strings is gorgeous. The whole passage – and the later reappearance of the material – conveys a wonderful nostalgia, as Mahler intended. This whole episode is a red letter moment in the performance. A little later (8:18) when the post-horn is accompanied by soft horns in the foreground the balance that Horenstein achieves is perfection. It’s a tribute to Horenstein and to Bob Auger that the plethora of tiny details in the passage between 13:38 and the post-horn passage at 14:10 are so acutely observed. As the movement nears its end there’s what Michael Steinberg has termed the “spine-chilling reference” to the grosse Appell from the finale of the Second symphony. This has a huge impact here, as does the superbly exciting brief coda (from 17:46).
In IV Norma Proctor is a rich-toned, intense soloist. The mysterious, hushed stirrings in the bass line before her first entry offer yet another example of the immediacy and fine detail of the recording in this transfer. In the brief following movement the boys’ choir, expertly trained by Russell Burgess, sing with real gusto and precision while the ladies of the Ambrosian Singers offer fresh, lively singing.
And so to the eloquent final movement. Horenstein shapes it patiently, allowing the music to unfold naturally. He paces the opening pages perfectly, imparting space and nobility to the long string lines, which are richly delivered by the LSO. Again the recording reports the performance marvellously. The sound has a sheen that is very satisfying but the detail is there too. As an example, try the passage at 9:06 where the horns have the burden of the argument but underneath there is a quiet but telling clarinet part. You can hear the clarinet line on the Unicorn CDs but here it has just that tiny bit more definition and so registers with the listener without calling undue attention to itself. When the trumpets take up the broad chorale theme (16:16) the playing is superbly hushed and spacious. The great peroration (from 19:23) is invested with effortless grandeur by Horenstein; it sounds like the aural equivalent of seeing a great mountain in front of you. The very end (from 21:43) is wonderfully majestic, rounding off a superb traversal of this great symphony.
So this marvellous performance has been presented to the listener in glorious sound, the quality of which matches the excellence of the playing and interpretation. Unfortunately HDTT let themselves down somewhat with some slipshod presentation. There’s one flaw with the discs themselves, namely that insufficient time has been allowed between some of the movements. The most grievous example of this occurs between I and II, where there’s a gap of a mere three seconds – Unicorn allow some nine seconds. After the huge first movement the listener needs a breather and, frankly, this should have been recognised. As it is, you’ll find you have to hit the pause button. There’s an equally unacceptably brief gap between III and IV, again lasting some three seconds where Unicorn allow about ten seconds to elapse.
The other negative feature is the booklet which, candidly, is shoddy. The notes are just about serviceable – no more – though, happily texts and translations are provided. But the booklet and jewel-case lack any track timings – though, perversely, these are printed on the CDs themselves – and there are several glaring errors, the most obvious of which is the labelling of trombonist Denis Wick as a “vocal soloist”. It seems a shame that when everything else about this release defines it as a premium product these small slips have been allowed through. I’m also a little puzzled about the venue for the recording. HDTT state that it took place in Barking Assembly Hall but the Unicorn booklet gives Fairfield Halls, Croydon as the venue; I’m unsure which is correct.
However, whilst it’s right to point out the presentational slips nothing should detract from the importance or excellence of this release. Tony Duggan expressed the view that “This remains one of the greatest recordings of any Mahler symphony ever set down and I think it always will.” I agree. And this wonderful reincarnation of the recording enables us to appreciate it as never before. I can only urge all Mahler collectors to hear this startlingly good transfer, even if they already own the Unicorn CDs. This HDTT release is nothing short of revelatory and I’ve found listening to it an absolutely thrilling experience. May we now hope that HDTT will issue Horenstein’s magisterial recording of Nielsen’s Fifth. That really would be something!
One of the greatest of all Mahler recordings in a transfer that is nothing short of revelatory ... see Full Review