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Symphony for solo piano



Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Vienna, 1953

This recording was originally made by Vox and released under that label. According to Misha Horenstein’s notes accompanying Pristine’s release, Harold C Schonberg wrote in the New York Times in May 1953 that “Horenstein toys around with the music too much. He tends towards sentimentality; he underlines phrases which need no underlining, and there is a consequent lack of subtlety.”

I broadly agree with Schonberg’s description of how Horenstein conducts the music, but I don’t agree that the conductor’s approach leads to a lack of subtlety. Quite the reverse. There is a considerable amount of tempo fluctuation within each movement, as Horenstein vividly illuminates the contrasting emotions suggested by the score: love of nature, anguish and anger, triumph and, yes, sentimentality, and more. The approach is, if you like, Furtwängler writ large. But it is never taken to the extreme where the structure of the music is under threat. It is hard to think Mahler would have disapproved. While he left no orchestral recordings, what we know of him suggests he was no single-tempo-in-a-movement bandmaster.

Horenstein is incomparable at illuminating important details which others simply glide over or ignore. At a number of points, you may well find yourself thinking “I’ve never really noticed that before”. At least two such moments occur in the first movement’s slow introduction: the fanfare for the clarinets comes over more vividly than I’ve ever heard before (and how gloriously the Vienna players deliver it). The string pizzicatos impinge on one’s consciousness in a way that they do not in other interpretations and make their proper contribution to the atmosphere Mahler seeks to create. The double bass solo at the beginning of the third movement sounds appropriately grotesque, not beautiful. And the opening of the finale, Mahler’s ‘cry of a wounded heart’, is delivered with unsurpassed vehemence.

While not having heard previous transfers of this recording, I nonetheless suspect that Pristine’s restoration has helped to make these and other things properly audible. Our late, much admired authority on Mahler recordings Tony Duggan described Vox’s recording as boxy and close-miked. In view of this, Pristine has surely adopted the correct approach by using its ‘ambient stereo’ technique to imbue the sound with considerable warmth and spaciousness. The upper frequencies remain somewhat attenuated, but this was no doubt a characteristic of Vox’s sound which usually (but not always) lagged well behind the best the record industry was achieving in the nineteen-fifties.

As regards the performance, Duggan found it surpassed by the conductor’s 1969 stereo recording with the London Symphony Orchestra on Unicorn. Bruno Walter’s 1954 mono recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was the most obvious contemporary rival to Horenstein’s 1953 recording but Duggan considered Walter’s 1961 stereo production with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra offered more insights (both most recently available in a 7-CD Sony boxed set ‘Bruno Walter conducts Mahler’).

I respectfully take the opposite view in preferring both conductors’ first commercial recordings over their remakes. For Unicorn, Horenstein took a straighter view than he did for Vox, with less tempo fluctuation but, to my mind, less expressive and imaginative impact. Of course, it’s still a very fine performance. Surprisingly, a recently purchased copy of the Unicorn (a 1988 transfer) left me underwhelmed as regards sound quality. It’s atmospheric but transferred at a comparatively low level and not particularly wide-ranging. Turn your volume control up to get satisfactory impact at such moments as the start of the finale.

The difference between the two Horenstein performances is reflected in the timings which in 1969 were faster in all movements, except the fourth where the timings were 20:51 (1953) and 22:14 (1969). The overall timings were 57:43 (1953) and 56:51 (1969). Duggan concluded that “though the Vienna Symphony play well and idiomatically…their contribution lets (Horenstein) down, especially in the last movement…” With the benefit of Pristine’s fine transfer, I don’t find differences in orchestral execution to be a decisive issue. The more stimulating 1953 interpretation is what counts.

Walter’s 1954 New York recording, which has long been my favourite, is listed by MWI as one of the ‘Recommended’ recordings of this work. It had the triple advantages of being played by one of Mahler’s own orchestras, recorded in Carnegie Hall with its superb acoustic and captured in high fidelity (if mono) sound. The main difference between it and the 1961 stereo recording is the speed of the finale: 18:17 in 1954 and 20:25 in 1961. The former is immensely propulsive and exciting which arguably better suits the character of the music, the latter is more grand and noble, more measured but definitely not ‘tired and underpowered’, as one commentator claimed.

Horenstein’s performances run for five to nine minutes longer than Walter’s, but such comparisons offer little illumination due to that fact that Walter, as was his wont, omitted repeats. Nevertheless, part of the explanation for Walter’s shorter timings lies in his less discursive approach. One could generalise by saying that, particularly in comparison to Horenstein’s Vox performance, Walter (in his senior years) gave straighter, less consciously expressive but still warm and noble interpretations.

Horenstein on Vox (and now Pristine) offers one of the all-time great expositions of this symphony. As an interpretation, it surpasses, in my view, his own later reading for Unicorn and both of Walter’s for Columbia/Sony, as authoritative as those three are. It is exciting in the deepest sense because it tells us so much more about Mahler’s score and about the emotions that lay behind the notes. Its sound is now very serviceable due an expert restoration effort. Even if you have a ‘no historical recordings’ rule, this production belongs in your collection. Buy it if you have the slightest love for Mahler’s music.

Rob W McKenzie



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