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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 (1901-02)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. live, 31 August 1961, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

We have been indebted to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for a number of recordings of performances by Jascha Horenstein, not least the recent issue of a 1960 performance of Mahler’s Ninth (review), but this latest one is particularly important. Until recently it had been thought that no recording existed of Horenstein conducting Maher’s Fifth but three performances have come to light in the last few years. I don’t know if anyone has issued either of the other two recordings, which are presumably off-air, as this one is, but now through this Edinburgh performance admirers of Horenstein can hear him at last in this score. The other reason why this issue is important is that with its release it’s now possible to hear recordings of Horenstein in all the Mahler symphonies with the exception of the Second. I understand that no recordings are known to exist of Horenstein performing the ‘Resurrection’, a work that I believe he seldom conducted - but, then, they used to say that about the Fifth …

As it happens I’ve heard this performance before; through the kindness of a friend I was able to access an off-air recording of it a while ago. The sound was somewhat compromised so I was interested to hear what Andrew Rose has been able to achieve.

The Pristine website reproduces a contemporary review of this performance from which we learn that Horenstein deputised for Rafael Kubelik at this concert. I wonder how much notice of the engagement and rehearsal time he had. One thing that is important to remember when listening to this performance, especially if you detect any rough edges, is that in 1961 the Berlin Philharmonic played Mahler far less frequently than is nowadays the case. Herbert von Karajan took up Mahler’s music fairly late in his career and, so far as I know, had not started to play his music in the early 1960s. When Sir John Barbirolli gave a number of Mahler symphonies with them – the Second, Third and Ninth – in the 1960s the orchestra was unfamiliar with the music. However, even if Mahler was not yet as much in the orchestra’s bloodstream as it has since become the playing here is committed and the orchestra is keenly responsive to Horenstein.

The opening funeral march is strong and darkly powerful. From the outset great tension is generated and Horenstein never really releases his grip on the music or its structure for the next seventy-odd minutes. At the very first fortissimo after the trumpet call the recording itself shows signs of strain and this will be a frequently recurring issue at climaxes throughout the symphony. However, do not be deterred; despite the sonic limitations there’s a considerable reading to be heard here. Horenstein ensures that the music is powerfully projected. His is an intense vision of the piece, albeit perhaps not quite as overtly emotional as one experiences, say, with Bernstein (review) or Tennstedt (review). In the following Stürmisch bewegt movement Horenstein’s interpretation is determined and strongly profiled. My only concern is that several times, when Mahler relaxes the pace, Horenstein’s speed is just a bit too slow; though the expressiveness is welcome one feels that some momentum is sacrificed.

The big central scherzo features an important part for the principal horn and we find the Berlin player on fine form. The horn is quite prominently balanced, which I like. The performance is well nuanced and sharply profiled. Much of the interpretation is vigorous though, once again, there are passages where I think Horenstein applies the brakes a little too much. One such instance occurs around 10:40 but, by way of compensation, this is immediately followed by a thrilling acceleration back to tempo. The Berliners play extremely well in this movement; their individual and collective attack is most impressive.

I very much like Horenstein’s way with the celebrated Adagietto. He takes 9:38, which is pretty similar overall to Barbirolli (review). I think his pacing is very judicious. He is neither too expansive in the way that Bernstein or Tennstedt can seem, albeit in performances of great conviction, nor is he as fleet as either Barshai (review ~ review) or Bruno Walter (review). The performance is initially tender though there’s suitable ardour later on and I admire very much the very natural rubato with which Horenstein invests the music. The orchestra is elegant and eloquent in its response. It’s a shame that the sound deteriorates more than once: it crumbles a lot for a few seconds at 4:11 and the final climax shows signs of strain. However, this is a highly persuasive, touching reading.

If I had to select a single word to describe Horenstein’s approach to the Rondo-Finale it would be ‘resolute’. Nowadays Mahler’s Fifth has become something of an orchestral showpiece – and a calling card for touring orchestras – and the ebullient, virtuoso nature of the finale is guaranteed to bring the house down. Horenstein will have none of this. He keeps the music on a pretty tight rein and his core speed is sensible, though the performance has no little vitality. Horenstein refuses to be hurried unduly or seduced by surface brilliance and I find his approach rewarding. It’s a trenchant, stimulating and impressive performance with the BPO giving their all. No wonder the Edinburgh audience responded with such enthusiasm at the end. Incidentally, though this final track plays for 17:34 the music itself lasts for only 16:18; after that we hear the perfectly modulated voice of the BBC announcer followed by closing credits in German and French because the concert was relayed internationally. During the performance one is conscious of the presence of an audience, though never disruptively so, and after the second and fourth movements you can hear the shuffling in the hall. I’m glad that hall ambience has been retained between movements because it enhances the feel of the occasion.

As I’ve indicated, the sound on this recording is not ideal despite the best efforts of Andrew Rose. However, this is a very considerable performance indeed of the Fifth Symphony led by a Mahler conductor of great stature so I would urge that no one should be put off by any issues with the sound. Whatever the limitations of the sound one can still clearly hear a significant performance unfolding. I just wish someone had had the vision to allow Horenstein to take his interpretation of this symphony into the studio; what one would give to have a recording in sound comparable to the great Unicorn-Kanchana account of the Third.

This recording has been made available by courtesy of the conductor’s cousin, Mischa Horenstein. All admirers of this fine conductor will be grateful to him and to Andrew Rose for filling a significant gap in Horenstein’s Mahler discography. Now, is there any chance of unearthing somewhere a Horenstein performance of the Second Symphony? I fear not, but we live in hope.

John Quinn



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