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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 [36::04]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56 [19:58]
Tragic Overture, Op.81 [12:51]
Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio (SWDR); Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Franšaise (overture)/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 20-30 October 1957; live broadcast 19 November 1956 (overture)

The recordings of the Third Symphony and the ‘Haydn’ Variations were made under studio conditions and released on LP by Vox. I have not heard them before. I am familiar with the live performance of the ‘Tragic’ Overture, though. This has previously been issued by the Music & Arts label in a fascinating boxed set of Horenstein radio performances given in Paris between 1952 and 1966 (review).

The performance of the symphony is most interesting. In the first movement much of Horenstein’s interpretation has great urgency and the thrusting opening comes at the listener in a pretty full-on fashion, the violins sounding somewhat shrill and the brass bright, even strident. How much that is down to the Vox recording and how much it is due to the way the orchestra plays I would not care to say. I think though that it would be fair to comment that the tone of the German brass section is not the most burnished that one has heard. In this movement Horenstein maintains tension very firmly and even in the passages where Brahms relaxes the conductor refuses to impart an autumnal feel.

We have become accustomed nowadays to hearing a lot of conductors deliver the middle movements of this symphony as a pair of intermezzi but that is not Horenstein’s way. He treats the Andante as a genuine slow movement. My initial reaction was that I prefer to hear this music taken at a somewhat more flowing tempo. However, I soon found that I warmed to Horenstein’s approach and not least to the air of solemnity which he imparts to much of the music – sample the hushed passage between about 2:00 and 3:30. I came to find this performance very persuasive even if it is not the way I might always wish to hear it done. The Poco allegretto is also taken steadily but once again Horenstein convinces. This is distinguished conducting with the music shaped eloquently.

The finale is quite measured and the performance is a strong one, especially in the climactic passage around 4:00 which is delivered in quite a craggy fashion. To be honest, the core tempo is probably just a bit too sturdy and deliberate. The wonderful, tranquil closing pages (from 7:09) do not glow as warmly as I have heard in the hands of some other conductors but Horenstein still conveys skillfully the unwinding to a state of repose. Overall, this is a thoughtfully conceived account of the symphony and even if, by today’s standards, the orchestral playing is not always of the highest order the performance is still well worth hearing.

I admired, too, the reading of the Variations. This comes across to me as strongly projected and fairly serious in tone but it is most interesting to hear. The Overture receives a trenchant, powerful reading. As Andrew Rose points out in a note, the French orchestra is heard more forwardly than their German counterparts. As a result, I think the orchestra can seem a bit aggressive in loud passages. Comparing the transfer with the one on Music & Arts (Maggi Payne, 2004) I would say that the new Pristine transfer is preferable. The sound of the orchestra, as recorded, has been ‘tamed’ rather more successfully but without any loss of impact. This mono recording is here presented in Ambient Stereo

The transfers of the Vox recordings are also successful. Andrew Rose points out that Vox recordings in the 1950s included a degree of experimentation with twin-channel recording. Where these Brahms recordings are concerned this resulted in a distinct ‘hole in the middle’ of the sound. His remastering has included a small element of stereo narrowing. As I listened I was conscious of the orchestra being in a larger acoustic than is the case with the French radio recording and the woodwind appear to be rather more obviously in the centre of the soundstage than is usual. However, I found the results perfectly satisfactory.

Those who, like me, are admirers of Jascha Horenstein will be glad to have these Brahms recordings available to enjoy and learn from.

John Quinn



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