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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op 93 [24:53]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op 55 ‘Eroica’ [53:45]
Orchestre National de France (8), Vienna Symphony Orchestra (3)/Jascha Horenstein
rec. live, Paris, 11 February 1951 (8); Vienna, February 1953 (3)
Ambient stereo

Hot on the heels of Jascha Horenstein’s tremendous 1958 performance of Missa Solemnis (review), Pristine now present performances of two Beethoven symphonies: the ‘Eroica’ and the Eighth.

The Eighth was recorded live in 1951. In an accompanying note, the conductor’s cousin, Misha Horenstein, refers to a “brisk, no-nonsense approach” to the symphony. In the first movement that results in very sharp profiling of the rhythms and a strong sense of drive. Jascha Horenstein’s energetic approach is to be applauded. However, as I listened there were times when I wished he had eased up a little and allowed the subsidiary material space in which to relax. It’s a very bracing rendition of the music, not least in the fiery account of the development section. Misha Horenstein describes the rendition of the Allegretto scherzando movement as “crisp and graceful”. I’d certainly agree about the crispness but I’m less sure that what I hear is graceful; I miss any sense of playfulness. The third movement is much more genial and Horenstein achieves this without sacrificing the purposefulness in his interpretation. In an ideal world, I would have welcomed a bit more relaxation in the Trio. The finale is full of dynamism and vitality. In the performance as a whole, I admire the energy but I find the performance somewhat unsmiling.

The spaciousness of Horenstein’s approach to the ‘Eroica’ comes as something of a shock to the system after one has heard the Eighth; would the contrast be so great had the running order been reversed, I wonder? This is the first of two recordings of the symphony that Jascha Horenstein made in the 1950s. He recorded the ‘Eroica’ again, also for Vox but this time in stereo, in May 1957. I’ve not heard that recording but I note from the review by Rob McKenzie that the performance played for 50:02, suggesting a less spacious approach compared with the 1953 reading. In his review, Rob quotes comments by two critics, Deryck Cooke and Gerald Fox; the former strongly preferred the 1957 re-make whereas the latter favoured the 1953 recording. Misha Horenstein comments in his note that “[s]peculation suggests that during the four year interim period [between the two ‘Eroica’ recordings], stimulated by his research on historical performance practice, [Jascha Horenstein] underwent a radical transformation in his conception, not only of the Eroica but of how all music should be performed.” It’s difficult for me to comment because, as I say, I’ve not heard the 1957 recording, but the respective overall timings would suggest a tauter approach the second time round. My experience of listening to Horenstein’s performances of not only Missa Solemnis but also Mahler’s Third Symphony (review) powerfully suggest that this ever-inquisitive conductor thought about and revised his interpretations. It’s interesting to note, however, that in the case of those two works his later traversals of both scores was somewhat more expansive than was the case first time round, whereas in the case of the ‘Eroica’, it seems that the reverse was true. Misha Horenstein tells us that his cousin commented in an interview “the first Eroica I conducted with my heart, the second with my head”.

The very opening of the ‘Eroica’ surprised me. After the two chords which call us to attention, Horenstein plays the music in a relaxed, even graceful fashion with the accents somewhat blunted until the first tutti rendition of the main theme (0:49). His approach to the movement is very spacious and perhaps it’s as well that the exposition repeat is not taken or else the movement would have been very long indeed; as it is, it plays for 16:53. As I listened, I wondered how the performance compared with Otto Klemperer’s 1959 EMI recording with the Philharmonia, a performance to which I haven’t listened for some time. When I started to listen comparatively, I found that, though points of detail differ, the overall conception of the movement – indeed of the symphony as a whole – are not dissimilar. In many ways, both conductors pace and seem to feel the music in a similar fashion. Klemperer also omits the exposition repeat and brings the movement in at 16:36. Initially, I was a little disconcerted by the breadth of Horenstein’s interpretation but his view grew on me and I appreciated the tension and drama in the development section. Certainly, the performance has integrity and Horenstein takes nothing for granted.

The Marcia funèbre is taken very slowly indeed – the basic tempo is even slower than Klemperer’s: Horenstein takes Beethoven’s marking of Adagio assai to heart. The speed may be slow but Horenstein encourages his orchestra to dig deep; this is a profound and searching performance, the stature of which is comparable to Klemperer’s. As I listened, it seemed to me that what was unfolding was something akin to the musical equivalent of a Shakespearian tragedy. The performance has great emotional power and the very end of the movement sounds drained. The scherzo is energetic and well-sprung and the VSO horn section enjoys itself in the Trio.

The finale opens with a brief burst of adrenalin, though Horenstein doesn’t quite achieve this because he takes the opening bars at quite a steady pace. Klemperer, whose overall conception of the movement is fairly similar to Horenstein’s, makes the opening into the sort of headlong rush that I’d expect. (Interestingly, though, when this opening material is reprised after the slow variations, Horenstein is absolutely consistent with the way in which he announced the movement whereas the second time round Klemperer adopted a speed steadier than his opening.) Horenstein gives a fine account of the movement, characterising the individual variations well. The slower variations (from 7:17) are moulded with feeling. After the resumption of the Allegro molto (11:15), Horenstein invests the music with an heroic quality in the same way that the stoic Klemperer does. Jascha Horenstein’s account of the ‘Eroica’ may not be to all tastes, and it’s light years away from the lithe performances one is accustomed to hearing these days. However, it’s a deeply serious exploration of a great symphony and his is an interpretation that makes the listener think.

The orchestral playing in both performances is spirited if not, perhaps, ideally polished. The recordings come from Misha Horenstein’s archive. Andrew Rose’s transfers have come up well. However, not even he can do much about the resonant acoustic in which the ‘Eroica’ was recorded. Be ready for a very substantial reverberation after each of the two opening chords of the symphony and be ready also for the sound of booming timpani whenever the drummer is required to play loudly.

This is another valuable addition to Jascha Horenstein’s discography and I suspect that collectors who already have the 1957 ‘Eroica’ in their possession will find it fascinating to compare and contrast with this 1953 performance.

John Quinn

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