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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 [75:21]
BBC Radio introduction [1:34]
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 30 October 1958, BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London

This is the second performance of Mahler’s Fifth under the baton of Jascha Horenstein that Pristine has issued. Back in 2015 they issued a performance that he gave with the Berlin Philharmonic in August 1961 during the Edinburgh Festival. I was very impressed with that performance, summing it up as “a very considerable performance indeed of the Fifth Symphony led by a Mahler conductor of great stature” (review).

There’s a background story to this LSO performance and it’s an intriguing one. I will summarise it, drawing on the booklet note by Mischa Horenstein, the conductor’s cousin. In autumn 1958 the LSO engaged Horenstein to conduct them in two concerts, one of which was to be a Mahler 5 performance in Leeds, in connection with some projected recordings for Vox Records, including the symphony. The record company withdrew and the BBC stepped into the breach, apparently at the prompting of Robert Simpson. The Leeds concert went ahead a few days after this Maida Vale performance. In preparation for that studio performance Horenstein got no fewer than five rehearsals – one for the strings alone – and this was surely necessary because – and this may come as a shock to us now in our Mahler-saturated age – the LSO had never played the Fifth before. The BBC made the present recording in a single take but then sat on the recording for some 18 months; it was not broadcast until June 1960, presumably as part of the BBC’s celebrations of Mahler’s centenary, and it does not seem that the performance was ever heard again until now. However, the plot thickens at this point. The LSO had embarked on a series of recordings with Everest Records and the Fifth was one of the repertoire suggestions by the orchestra that Everest took up. Whether accidentally or deliberately, Horenstein’s name was not put forward by the LSO to conduct the Fifth and the assignment was entrusted instead to Rudolf Schwarz. The recording was made on 10 and 11 November and Schwarz must have benefitted hugely from the work done with the LSO just a matter of days before by Horenstein. I’ve not heard that recording but I see that Tony Duggan thought well of it (review). Now, this Pristine recording gives us the chance to experience what that Everest commercial recording might have sounded like with Jascha Horenstein at the helm.

I like Horenstein’s pace for the opening funeral march. He allows the music to breathe without any dragging. In other words, the speed is judicious. His way with the music is clear-eyed yet there’s no lack of emotional charge; the approach is well disciplined. When the music become much quicker and turbulent the playing has power and urgency. I think it would be fair to say that in this performance as a whole the LSO of 1958 doesn’t display quite the same level of consummate virtuosity that we’re accustomed to hearing from the orchestra today but one must factor in that the 1958 cohort was not steeped in Mahler in the way that is nowadays the case. That said, the LSO still put up an excellent showing for Horenstein: those hours of rehearsal had been well spent. Overall, I think Horenstein’s account of this first movement is pretty compelling.

The second movement follows attacca, as I believe it should. The several contrasting episodes in this movement are all made to count. Thus, for example, the opening is vehement and fiery but the slower section that follows (1:29 - 3:47) is persuasively phrased. The long quasi-recitative passage for cellos over a soft timpani roll (from 4:37) is slow and mysterious. Throughout the movement one has the feeling that Horenstein is shaping the music convincingly and with a sure feel for the trajectory of Mahler’s argument.

In the big central scherzo, the key solo horn part is played by Barry Tuckwell; he’s very fine. Horenstein invests the music with an attractive open-air feel. The music is full of life with the rhythms well sprung, which is crucial to making the movement a success. I enjoyed the LSO’s playing very much.

There’s frequent debate over the best way to pace the celebrated Adagietto. Some conductors, like Bernstein or Tennstedt have taken an expansive view while other conductors, like Walter or Rudolf Barshai have been more fleet of foot. Horenstein steers something of a middle course, taking 9:54, and I think he gets it just about spot-on – as was the case in his Edinburgh Festival performance. He is expressive, though never indulgent, and the music has all the space it needs in order to live and breathe. He builds it very naturally to an ardent climax. The rondo finale receives a spirited reading but Horenstein keeps everything well disciplined. His approach is not as exuberant as some but the structure is clear and taut. When he reaches the chorale that we first heard towards the end of the second movement, it seems like a natural point of arrival. After that, the final dash for the finish line is not as uninhibited as in some performances but it still lifts the spirits.

So ends a fine performance of Mahler’s Fifth. Indeed, the verdict that I reached on the Edinburgh Festival reading, that it was a very considerable performance led by a Mahler conductor of great stature, could justifiably be applied to this earlier traversal too. With two different Horenstein performances available from Pristine the question will inevitably arise: which one should I buy? And those who already have the Edinburgh recording will wonder: stick or twist? Well, any admirer of Jascha Horenstein will want at least one of his performances in their collection. I don’t believe there are any significant interpretative differences and, to be truthful, I wouldn’t want to say that one orchestra is significantly better than the other. Perhaps the Berlin Philharmonic has an edge in terms of polish but I have the impression that the LSO, who play very well indeed, are more settled with the conductor: perhaps the BPO had less rehearsal time? There is one clear winner in sonic terms, though. The sound on this newcomer is much better than on the Edinburgh account. The latter is at times more strident and is prone to distortion. Furthermore, as we’re listening to the radio relay of a live concert hall performance there are some vagaries of balance. The LSO recording isn’t perfect; after all, it is more than sixty years old. It’s unfortunate that the timpani consistently sound dull and I detected some distortion in loud passages in the Adagietto. Overall, though, this BBC recording has come up very well and Andrew Rose has worked his usual magic on it. So, if you want just one of these recordings then I think the choice is clear: the LSO performance is the one to go for. And collectors who already have the Edinburgh traversal shouldn’t discard it – I certainly won’t surrender my copy – but should seriously consider buying this newcomer as well.

Pristine have retained the very precisely modulated BBC announcement that precedes the performance. It’s separately tracked so you can skip it if you wish.

One final thought. There is, it seems, a third Horenstein Mahler 5 in Mischa Horenstein’s collection. This is a live performance from October 1969 and was given with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, attempts to contact the orchestra to negotiate permission to issue this performance have met with no response. If any MusicWeb International readers have an entrée to the Gothenburg orchestra then I’m sure Andrew Rose would be delighted to hear from you.

In the meantime, for all admirers of this great conductor here is more buried treasure. Let’s hope that through the good offices of Mischa Horenstein there will be much more to come.

John Quinn

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