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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895) [97:15]
Norma Proctor (contralto), Denis Wick (trombone), William Lang (flügelhorn), Ambrosian Singers, Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. July 1970, Fairfield Halls, Croydon
German texts and English translations included
UNICORN-KANCHANA UKCD2006 [42:47 + 54:28]

It’s great news that this classic performance is back in the catalogue. For my money this was one of the most exciting recordings ever issued by Unicorn-Kanchana.

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, this Jascha Horenstein 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. Above all, I’m entirely at one with him in admiring this magnificent Horenstein performance.

The Unicorn recording was engineered by Bob Auger, who died at the end of 1998. His obituary in The Independent newspaper includes the comment: “One of his best recordings for Unicorn is widely regarded as Horenstein's Mahler Third, reputedly the first commercial multi-track Dolby A recording on one-inch tape.” I bought the Unicorn CDs many years ago and I’ve always thought that it offers very fine reproduction. The sound achieved by Auger is atmospheric, detailed and rich. The recording has a very wide dynamic range and conveys an abundance of detail. The percussion is excellently reported throughout, not least when playing quietly.

The first movement, which lasts 33:28 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 – 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. His march is fairly steady but it is full of incident and colour and in Horenstein’s hands the music has great strength. Incidentally, his overall timing for this vast movement is almost identical to Bernstein’s 33:16. The attention to detail is quite superb but so too is the sweep of the music in his hands. This opening movement is a vast canvas, 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 particularly stood out 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 13:49 and 14:07 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. At 23:54, immediately before the reprise of the very opening of the movement, the way the side-drum’s gradual decrease in volume is achieved is excellent. I wonder if Horenstein and Auger had learned from the way a few months earlier, albeit in a different hall, they had recorded the same instrument in an offstage room at the end of the first movement of Nielsen’s Fifth? Horenstein – aided and abetted by Bob Auger’s engineering - ensures that the final climax of the movement (32:47) is a huge moment, after which Horenstein drives the LSO on in a collective dash for the finish line that is positively exhilarating. I hadn’t listened to this recording for a little while and I found myself absolutely gripped by Horenstein’s riveting reading of this huge movement.

One needs an aural breather after this – as one does after the first movement of the Second Symphony - and Mahler provides it with a relaxed, charming movement marked Tempo di Menuetto. Here Horenstein conjures playing of great delicacy and refinement from 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. The recording reports all this expert music-making with wonderful clarity.

At the very start of III I wondered if the woodwind were a little too forwardly balanced though 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 (at 5:54) the effect is quite magical. I think this is for two reasons. Firstly the player, William Lang, is distanced most atmospherically, almost certainly playing outside the main hall. Secondly, and crucially, he plays the solos on a flügelhorn, with just the right amount of vibrato. It’s a wonderful passage and it comes across excellently in the Unicorn recording. 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 entire episode is a red letter moment in the performance. A little later (8:09) 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 13:26 and the post-horn passage at 14:04 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 (17:01). This has a huge impact here, as do the superbly exciting closing bars.

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 the brief following movement the boys’ choir, expertly trained by Russell Burgess, sings with real gusto and precision while the ladies of the Ambrosian Singers offer a fresh and lively contribution.

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. When the trumpets take up the broad chorale theme (at 16:19) the playing is superbly hushed and spacious. The great peroration (from 19:27) is invested with effortless grandeur by Horenstein; it sounds like the aural equivalent of seeing a great mountain in front of you. The last two or three minutes are wonderfully majestic, rounding off a superb traversal of this great symphony.

This is a marvellous performance and the recording itself, while nearly 46 years old, still sounds remarkably good. In recent years there have been a significant number of releases of performances by Jascha Horenstein, mostly deriving from live broadcasts. These have been extremely welcome because this fine conductor was invited to make all too few commercial recordings. I admire many of his recordings – live and studio-made – but among all those I’ve heard this Mahler Third strikes me as being his greatest achievement. I can only urge any Mahler devotees who do not have this great performance in their collection to snap it up.

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 wholeheartedly.

John Quinn



 

 




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