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Marcel MIHALOVICI (1898-1985)
Sinfonia Partita for String orchestra Op. 66 (1952) [9:17]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony in Three Movements (1945) [23:37]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra Sz. 116 1942-1943 rev. 1945) [39:05]
Orchestra National de la Radio-Television Française (Mihalovici), Orchestre National de France (Stravinsky, Bartók) / Jascha Horenstein
rec. live, 4 May 1953 (Mihalovici), 19 December 1961 (Stravinsky, Bartók), Théâtre des Champs–Élysées, Paris

Here is another disc in which Horenstein demonstrates his versatility in music from a tradition very different from the Germanic one with which he is chiefly associated.

We begin with the Sinfonia Partita for String Orchestra by Marcel Mihalovici, a name new to me. He was born in Romania and discovered by George Enescu. He moved to Paris as a young man and had a prolific career composing in varied forms but always with a strong commitment to neoclassicism. This work bears the subtitle Symphony no. 2; in fact, Mihalovici wrote five symphonies in all. He and his wife, the pianist Monique Haas, were friends of Horenstein and this performance was the French premiere. It is a short work of considerable rhythmic vitality but rather unmemorable ideas. If you think of a much paler version of Martinů’s Double Concerto, it will give you an idea of what it is like. Considering the other two works here, it is best regarded as a bonus.

The performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements comes as a surprise. It has terrific onward drive and is fierce and completely idiomatic. Stravinsky’s jabbing accents and sudden explosions are all faithfully realized. The pungent timbres of the French woodwind add greatly to the effect. Horenstein also points the accompaniment figures carefully, as they are very much part of the design, and when the strings have some lyrical phrases, he shapes them with the care we would expect. I was particularly pleased that the strange canon in the third movement, which starts with a dialogue between a trombone and the piano, came over convincingly, because this is always an awkward corner. This is a live performance and there are momentary imprecisions, for example in the ferocious passage in the first movement for strings alternately pizzicato and arco with piano on top, but this is a small thing: this is a tremendous performance, as good as any more recent one that I have heard.

The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra is nearly as fine. The opening is suitably atmospheric and mysterious, and when we reach the Allegro vivace, the leaping string line is expressive and not just angular. In the second movement, Giuoco delle coppie, the French woodwind, this time in pairs, again have a chance to shine, and in the third, Elegia, Horenstein makes the swoops on the harp and wind sound uncannily close to the lake of tears in Bluebeard’s Castle, a work which does not seem to have been in his performing repertory but which, on the strength of this passage here, I would say he knew. In the Intermezzo Interrotto he gets humour out of both the cheerful stuttering little tune with which it begins and the parody passage from Shostakovich’s seventh symphony. The finale is joyous. This stands, in interpretation as well as in date, between the classic version of Fritz Reiner in Chicago in 1955 and that of Rafael Kubelik in Boston in 1973.

The Stravinsky and Bartók works both come from the same concert, and I think that part of their success here comes from the fact that, although they were not new, they were not yet repertory works and have the freshness of discovery - or Horenstein convinces us that this is so.  The recordings, presumably from French Radio, are of good quality for those days, if not fully up to modern standards; allowances need to be made only in some of the fully scored passages. The piano in the first movement of the Stravinsky could be a little more forward, as in this movement it has an almost concertante part, and some of its important thematic passages tended to disappear. On the other hand, the harp, which so easily disappears, has been discreetly boosted in the second and third movements. Andrew Rose must have carried out some unobtrusive wizardry in his remastering to achieve such generally good results. Applause is included; the sleevenote is minimal but sufficient.

The Stravinsky and Bartók recordings have appeared before in a Horenstein compendium of 2013 (review) but this is their first appearance in stereo and the first appearance altogether of the Mihalovici. They apparently come from the archive in the collection of Misha Horenstein, and I look forward to further issues from this source, particularly the Busoni series which Horenstein conducted for the BBC in the 1960s.

Stephen Barber

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