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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 (1902)
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 30 October 1958, BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC567 [76:55]

Tony Duggan, in his essay on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on this site, quotes Karajan as saying, ‘When you get to the end you find you have forgotten what age you were when you started.’ Another, more prosaic, version of this quote has Karajan saying, ‘You forget that time has passed’. But my favourite is, ‘you have forgotten what life you were in’. Each of these versions of the same idea evokes well the effect of listening to a symphony that moves from profound gloom to exuberant affirmation.

Karajan’s recording of the Fifth (DG) is altogether too silken for my taste. The Fifth is the Mahler symphony I find easiest to listen to and can therefore hear it relatively frequently. (The Ninth, on the other hand, or Das Lied von der Erde, require planning, rather like making an appointment or buying a ticket for a concert.). When I do listen to the Fifth I return most often to Barbirolli’s classic 1969 account with the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Warner/EMI). Other preferred performances include Rudolf Barshai’s with the marvellous young musicians of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (Brilliant) and, more recently, Iván Fischer’s with his magnificent Budapest Festival Orchestra on Challenge Classics. I have long been, however, a great admirer of Jascha Horenstein, so I was keen to hear this performance. It now takes its place among my favourites.

My colleague John Quinn has written a review in which he comprehensively recounts the circumstances of how this recording was made. I won’t go back over those details, except to underline that the London Symphony Orchestra was hardly familiar with the music of Mahler in 1958, and this performance would seem to be their first encounter with the Fifth Symphony. In these circumstances, the five rehearsals that led up to this performance hardly seem excessive. Indeed, given the sheer number of notes and the immense complexity of the work, the LSO’s playing is little short of outstanding. This performance was followed by a concert two days later that was, so we read in the interesting notes by Misha Horenstein, the conductor’s cousin, a great success.

I concur with John’s view of the performance in every respect and will do no more here than to add a few personal observations. First of all, we read in the notes that the performance was recorded at a single session, and there is certainly the feeling of a live performance caught ‘on the wing’. The presentation of the disc allows us to listen as if to the original radio broadcast, complete with a short spoken introduction refreshing in its simplicity and concision. You probably won’t want to listen to that every time, however, so it has sensibly been banded separately. The opening trumpet solo, delivered in strict time, introduces a first movement less doom-laden than in some performances. The first climax and the passage leading up to it are very commanding, and there can be no doubting the power of the playing throughout. The change of mood at 8:20 in the second movement sounds a bit pedestrian. Subsequent conductors have brought more fun to the music here, but it leads well into the climax of the movement, which is as exciting as any, and the ending equally mysterious.

A good half minute’s pause is allowed before the central Scherzo, complete with studio noises that, for this listener, only enhance the listening experience. It’s then difficult to tell if the split note on the horns’ top F sharp can be laid at Barry Tuckwell’s door or at that of one of his colleagues. Either way it soon passes – though neither is the same moment completely secure when it returns later in the movement – and Tuckwell is otherwise his usual, superb self throughout. The tranquil horn interludes are very slow and drawn out, rather more so than we are used to nowadays, as are other passages where only slight indications of tempo – such as ‘nicht eilen’ (don’t hurry), for example – are marked in the score.

Another longish pause, but with less studio presence, precedes the famous Adagietto. This is taken at a pleasingly flowing tempo, sensitively played, and beautifully poised at the return of the theme. The first horn announces the finale with no pause, as the score requires, though a slight change in ambience, also evident between the first two movements, suggests that this is the result of editing and was not actually the case in the studio. There is a certain sobriety about this performance of the finale, especially when compared to some of Horenstein’s more excitable later colleagues. But I agree wholeheartedly with John Quinn when he characterises the return of the chorale theme that leads to the exuberant close of the work as ‘a natural point of arrival’. This underlines the conductor’s characteristically cool-headed and thoughtful approach and is most satisfying.

I have not heard the later Horenstein performance of the Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, also on Pristine, and which John has also reviewed. This one, however, is presented in perfectly fine BBC sound, with which Andrew Rose has no doubt worked his usual miracles, and for which no allowances need be made. This issue, billed as a world premiere, is deeply rewarding and not to be missed.

William Hedley
 
Previous review: John Quinn



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