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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901/2) [75:52]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. live, Edinburgh Festival, 1961
PRISTINE AUDIO XR PASC416 [75:52]

For devotees of conductor Jascha Horenstein — and I count myself among them, having "imprinted" on his recordings of four of the symphonies — his performances of the Fifth Symphony have, over the years, acquired a cult status. He never brought the piece into the recording studio; concert air-checks have been elusive and, I'm told, sonically sub-par. Some collectors claimed to hear his influence in Rudolf Schwarz's old Everest recording with the LSO (EVC9032 - see Mahler 5 survey), supposedly taped shortly after a series of Horenstein concert performances. That performance, while characteristically forthright, represented Horenstein at one remove, at best.

The present release, while welcome, isn't quite the Holy Grail one anticipated. No doubt, producer Andrew Rose has done a heroic job getting this Edinburgh Festival recording into listenable condition. He mentions having to eliminate or reduce "crosstalk, interference, [and] a great deal of hiss, swish, and other defects" from it. Still, the sound quality remains quite variable. Sometimes the sonorities are pleasingly clear and airy; sometimes they're veiled. Tuttis can be subject to old-fashioned breakup. This is most bothersome in the Scherzo on headphones and in the second movement over speakers. Stringent compression of the original broadcast occasionally produces the anomaly of healthy crescendos that climax in comparatively cramped tuttis.

In sonic terms, then, this is not a basic library choice, but a historical document, and a compromised one at that. The source tape is missing fourteen bars in the Rondo-Finale's coda. Rose has filled the gap with those bars from another Horenstein performance — I'm reliably informed it's from 1969, with the Gothenburg Symphony — in order to "complete" the performance. The replacement is accomplished skilfully, splicing back into the final chord and closing announcements from Edinburgh, with no audible difference between sources.

The conductor's followers will not be surprised to learn that he draws a distinctive character from many passages. The first movement's opening theme, for example, is cleanly etched, not conventionally stoic but overtly mournful. That mood persists even as the woodwinds move into the major. The recapitulation of that major-key shift, at 9:15, is rueful and nostalgic; the concluding flute solo is strikingly desolate. In the transparent Adagietto, Horenstein's spacious phrasing allows the strings plenty of time to sing, and the climaxes build vibrantly. He also pushes ahead noticeably for the central section, at the Fliessender ("more flowing") marking, playing up its disquiet. Unbuttoned exuberance, anchored by rhythmic firmness, irresistibly propels much of the Finale, though the triumphal coda is flat-footed.

The conductor is similarly attentive to details of phrasing. In the second movement, he marks off the phrases within the descending passages after 1:18 and at 3:59, playing up their agitation better than in the customary headlong tumble. Trim, precise accents in the first violins help to bring out the Scherzo's Austrian lilt. In the Finale, the violins' upward runs at 6:30 and 6:56 are particularly dashing, while the Grazioso at 12:29 is appropriately light-fingered. Horenstein displays an unexpected feeling for orchestral colour in the Adagietto, highlighting the distinctive timbres of the various string sections, rather than letting them congeal into an all-purpose sonority.

The conductor's approach to tempo sounds rather conservative. He's apt, if anything, to underplay or even ignore marked accelerations rather than to move things ahead on his own. In the first movement, the horns' and trombones' veloce at 2:46 is anything but that, maintaining a majestic posture, though the horns' rising precipitato phrase at 6:18 is quite precipitate. In the Scherzo, I'd not call the slowing at 13:53 "unmerklich", as Mahler asks; nor does the Vorwärts drängend at 14:40 really push forward. Such passages could use a greater sense of impulse. Still, the firm rhythmic grounding is welcome.

Sometimes, to be sure, the moderation serves a positive musical purpose. The second movement begins with exceptional restraint. I like the extra sense of weight, though the players still don't stay quite together. In the Scherzo, Horenstein's marked slowing for the Langsamer at 4:36 allows for a starker contrast with the Wieder allmächlicher belebend; so, too, with the deliberate a Tempo molto moderato at 10:30 and the wind-up that ensues. In the Finale, the flashbacks to the Adagietto theme sing pleasingly without disrupting the movement's basic tempo. That said, the violin tone is dryer in the second flashback while the episode at 12:28 sounds reverent rather than skittish. On the other hand, the Allegro commodo (subito) at 10:01 stays close to the established tempo, resulting in some insecure co-ordinations between duplet and triplet rhythms.

The Berlin Philharmonic is a pleasant surprise: their clear, well-organized sound seems far more appropriate to Mahler than do the softer-edged sonorities they would later give Karajan. Woodwind solos in the Finale are pointed and characterful; so are the focused, bracing horns, including the soloist in the Scherzo, and the various unisons for four players in the Finale. In the second movement, it's good to hear the Etwas drängend at 12:24 at a restrained tempo with a comparable tonal restraint in the basses. Too bad they didn't play the Finale's first subject the same way. There, a Karajanish tonal bloat impedes the momentum, keeping the music earthbound through the first fugue.

Some such moments suggest baton signals that, in the heat of performance, were perhaps unclear. In the second movement, the orchestral re-entry after the extended cello "solo" has trouble staying together though the resumption of tempo at 7:35 steps smartly. The Nicht schleppend at 11:09 doesn't immediately settle into place and the move into the Hohepunkt at 13:29 is clumsy. The Scherzo suffers numerous mild smudges and imprecisions. At the Tempo I at 3:25, the solo brasses seem to be flying off every which way; miraculously, everyone lands together at 3:30.

This performance rewards studying as a contrast to more conventional interpretations but one can only still wonder about the performance Horenstein might have recorded under studio conditions.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
 
Previous review: John Quinn

 

 



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