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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Prelude and Carnival Music
from Violanta (1914) [9:11]
Karol RATHAUS (1895-1954)
Symphony No. 3, Op 50 (1942-43) [40:41]
Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Prelude to a Drama
(1918) [21:11]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Korngold), London Symphony Orchestra (Rathaus), BBC Symphony Orchestra (Schreker)/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 13 March 1956, BBC Farringdon Studios, London (Schreker), 14 November 1957, BBC Maida Vale Studio, London (Rathaus), 2 June 1965, Kingsway Hall, London (Korngold)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC434 [71:50]

I’ve already reviewed several notable Pristine Audio releases devoted to the art of Jascha Horenstein but there’s a case to be made that this is the most important to date on account of the rarity of the repertoire.

The main work here is the Third Symphony of Karol Rathaus. Mischa Horenstein tells us that Rathaus was one of Jascha Horenstein’s oldest and closest friends. They were students together in Vienna and Berlin and “throughout his career Horenstein made enormous efforts to perform Rathaus’s music and succeeded on a number of occasions.” It is believed that the performance of the Third Symphony that’s preserved here was the premiere of the score. I must admit that both work and composer were previously unknown to me though I see that the symphony has appeared on disc before. It was recorded in 2002, coupled with the Second Symphony (1923). The performers were Israel Yinon and the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt. I haven’t heard that disc but Rob Barnett reviewed it back in 2005. Reviews of other Rathaus works can be found here, here and here.

Karol Rathaus had a compositional talent that manifested itself early on. I believe that he began significant composition in his teens. He studied with Franz Schreker and after completing his studies in Berlin he taught in the city and also won acclaim for several works. He also composed music for a number of films.

Rathaus didn’t have an easy life. Despite the early regard for his music in Weimar Germany his star waned and once the Nazis came to power he, like Horenstein, fled Germany. Eventually, in 1938 he emigrated from Europe to the USA where two years later he became Professor of Composition at Queens College, New York, which post I think he held until his death in 1954. Though he seems to have found contentment as well as refuge in the USA this background of musical rejection and political turmoil must have left its mark and it’s unsurprising that the Third Symphony is a work of great seriousness. I thought that the music often sounded dark and when later I visited the Boosey & Hawkes website I read that the symphony is scored for the unusual forces of 2 piccolos, 2 cors anglais, 2 bass clarinets, 2 contrabassoons, 4 horns, 3 each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta and strings.

The first of the four movements contains powerful, sometimes turbulent music. The tone strikes me as very serious. Horenstein secures a strong performance. The decibel level is often quite high and there are several climaxes, the most significant of which occurs at around 10:00 and extends almost to the end of the movement. The scherzo comes next. This is energetic music but it’s not a good-humoured scherzo. Rather, it sounds robust and sturdy. Maybe this is down to Horenstein’s tempo selection though the pacing seems highly suitable to the character of the music.

The slow movement is introduced by a plangent oboe solo over a gently pulsing bass line; here there’s an air of mystery. The succeeding pages feature long-breathed string lines. This is a lyrical movement but again the tone is serious. Much of the music is dark-hued, a view I’d reached before I knew the orchestral scoring. I think this is arguably the most impressive movement in the work. The start of the finale presents us with the first genuinely fast music in the work though Rathaus drops back into a slower, introspective vein before long. Around the five-minute mark the music bursts back into life, however. There’s a welcome positive tone to the last couple of minutes in the movement, where Rathaus constructs a conclusion that is quite imposing.

I’m glad I’ve heard this work: it’s serious and full of interest. I would say that anyone who responds to Mahler, early Schoenberg or Franz Schmidt would feel drawn to this symphony. As far as I can tell, the score being new to me, Horenstein obtains from the LSO a powerful and committed performance of what will have been a completely unfamiliar score. Horenstein deserves much credit for devoting a broadcast engagement to furthering the cause of his recently-deceased friend and the BBC similarly should receive credit for agreeing to broadcast it. The sound has its limitations and I suspect that the recording itself is at least partly responsible for the fact that I found the decibel level of the music and performance somewhat wearing at times – I had to reduce the volume by several notches after listening to the Korngold recording, of which more in a moment.

It was a shrewd bit of programming to include on this disc a Horenstein performance of music by Schreker since he was Rathaus’s teacher. Horenstein also had some tuition from him, though Mischa Horenstein points out that Horenstein had some private composition lessons from Schreker in Vienna but only became his formal conservatoire pupil when Schreker moved to Berlin. Rathaus was a pupil of Schreker in both cities. The real influence of Schreker on Horenstein, however – and for this we must thank him – was that he soon recognised Horenstein’s potential as a conductor and used his influence to get him his first job, so setting him on his way. It appears that Horenstein tried to repay the debt by attempting to programme Schreker’s music after the war but was only successful in including two Schreker performances in his engagements: both were performances of Prelude to a Drama. So the present performance has definite rarity value.

I believe the piece is an expanded concert version of the overture to Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichneten (1915). It’s pretty substantial and seems to me to be well served here. Again, the music was surely unfamiliar to the orchestra but Horenstein secures an intense performance, bringing out its drama and colour. He gets the BBC Symphony Orchestra to play with commitment and the performance is often powerful and exciting. I also liked the poised delivery of the subdued ending. Andrew Rose says that the Rathaus is the better of these two recordings though I’m not entirely sure I agree. On my equipment the Schreker recording seemed to reproduce more comfortably and I certainly didn’t find the decibel level as wearing.

Without a doubt the best recording here, in sonic terms, is the piece by Korngold, who was a contemporary of Horenstein in early twentieth-century Vienna. This recording was something of an afterthought, set down to use up spare time when a session was completed ahead of schedule. Decca’s Kenneth Wilkinson was responsible for the engineering, and it shows. There’s depth to the bass spectrum of the orchestra while the upper registers have a suitable brilliance as, for example, with the tinkling percussion at the start. Later the sound of the brass is satisfyingly big and bold - the opulence of Korngold’s scoring comes across really well. The sound wears its fifty years very lightly. Initially Horenstein makes the music sound properly powerful while later on the playing has real life and spirit. I wonder if Horenstein and the RPO had played the piece recently in concert. If not, this must have been more or less a scratch reading yet it is convincing and impressive. Once more, this recording has genuine rarity value for Horenstein conducted Korngold’s music on only one other occasion during his career.

With the exception of the Korngold the recordings, which come from the collection of Mischa Horenstein, have inevitable limitations. However, these should not deter anyone; Andrew Rose has done an excellent job in transferring the recordings and maximising the recovery of information from them. These performances are invaluable additions to the discography of this great conductor.

John Quinn



 

 




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