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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1909)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. live, 22 June 1960, Konzerthaus, Vienna

Pristine continue their invaluable work on behalf of Jascha Horenstein by issuing this live Viennese performance of the Ninth Symphony. In 1952 Horenstein had made for Vox the first studio recording of the symphony to be released – a 1950 recording by Hermann Scherchen was not released for some years after it was set down, apparently. So far as I know that 1952 recording is no longer available. The same may be true of a BBC Legends release of a live performance from the 1966 Proms in which Horenstein conducted the LSO. I can only second the approval given to that performance by Tony Duggan in his laudatory review. If you can still find a copy of this set it offers an arresting experience.

In a note on the Pristine website the conductor’s cousin, Mischa, who has made this recording available, relates that the performance was a trying experience for Jascha Horenstein. It was given at the conclusion of the three-week Vienna Festival of 1960, which marked the centenary of the composer’s birth. Unfortunately, it seems that neither the Viennese public nor the VSO took to either the work or to Horenstein himself. Reportedly rehearsals were a trial and the orchestra was “unwilling and hostile”. Against that background I was surprised that the playing is as good as it is.

However, the mutinous mood of the orchestra may have left its mark at least on the first movement. I was quite taken aback by the restless and unyielding nature of much of the first movement. For at least the first thirteen minutes or so there is no real attempt by Horenstein to linger or to ease into phrases. That may simply be a question of how he felt the music at the time but a comparison with the 1966 LSO reading is fascinating. Overall, in 1966 the music is more expansive both in terms of tempi and of phrasing: Horenstein took 29:55 in 1966 whereas this 1960 VSO reading lasts for just 25:35. That’s a pretty substantial difference and while the LSO account is equally free from any sentimentality Horenstein clearly felt willing – or able – to mould the phrases more expressively on that occasion and to admit more rubato. I strongly suspect the fact that he had a more cooperative – and polished, if not flawless – band at his disposal in 1966 was an important factor.

Later in the movement the Vienna performance becomes a bit more relaxed and giving, especially in the closing minutes, but overall the impression is turbulent and, around 16:00 positively raw. It’s a dark, uncompromising and febrile reading and one which often put me in mind of Bruno Walter’s celebrated 1938 Vienna recording (review). Walter, for example, takes 24:47 over this movement, which is pretty close to Horenstein in 1960. While overall timings aren’t the most reliable of guides in music such as this where the tempi are constantly changing, it’s interesting to note that with the exception of the final Adagio Walter’s timings are quite similar to those achieved by Horenstein in 1960 – Walter is appreciably swifter in the last movement. Horenstein’s tense, taut and emotionally direct approach to the first movement is a completely valid one though I suspect the 1966 traversal may be more representative of his view.

He invests the second movement with plenty of bite and irony though Mahler’s more relaxed passages are convincingly handled too. Horenstein adopts quite a sturdy tempo for the opening Lšndler and the material that flows from it and I like that. Now is as good a time as any to comment on the recorded sound. It’s somewhat edgy and the treble frequencies can be rather shrill in the louder passages. In the first three movements the bass is rather too lightweight for my taste though matters improve in that respect during the fourth movement. I mention the sound now because the bright sound of the orchestra, as recorded, is not inappropriate in this second movement and the pungency and tart nature of a good deal of Mahler’s scoring is emphasised.

The Rondo-Burleske is fiery and snarling – once again the bright treble sound enhances this impression. Horenstein’s way with the fast music is uncompromising. The slower central episode (from 6:02) is not as nostalgic and expressive as I’ve heard it from many other conductors. In Horenstein’s hands this section doesn’t seem so much of a premonition of the finale as a way-station in the Rondo. When the Rondo resumes Horenstein takes no prisoners: he drives the music forward relentlessly, especially from 11:48 to the end, and you can sense the orchestra straining every sinew.

The reading of the Adagio has breadth and eloquence from the outset. The VSO strings are good and the better bass definition in the sound is welcome. In the opening pages the Viennese strings come up trumps and in the passage from around 7:00 to 9:32 their playing has no little eloquence. The extended climax (13:46-16:34) is impassioned, though it must be noted that at the peak of this passage (around 16:46) the recording comes under significant strain. In the long leave-taking (from 19:12) there are some tuning imperfections and hereabouts one is a bit more conscious than previously of extraneous noises, which is a pity. The audience breaks into applause almost as soon as the music has finished, which is regrettable, but unsurprisingly the 1966 Proms audience are even worse offenders in that respect.

On balance I think I prefer the 1966 LSO version, chiefly because I prefer the account of the first movement. However, the very different reading of that movement in 1960 is by no means to be underestimated. The BBC Legends issue offers better sound and it’s in genuine early stereo whereas Pristine offer a mono recording enhanced through their ambient stereo process. Having said that the BBC sound is superior I should hasten to add that Andrew Rose has done wonders with what must have been challenging source material. Any sonic limitations did not in any way impede my appreciation of Horenstein’s dark and uncompromising interpretation.

This is a valuable issue and admirers of this fine conductor, amongst whom I count myself, should certainly ensure they hear it, even if they already possess the 1966 recording.

John Quinn