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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 5
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / Jascha Horenstein
rec. live 16 October, 1969, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden
Horenstein in Gothenburg, Volume 2 PRISTINE AUDIO PASC613 [75:17]
Before considering this recording, it’s worth pointing out that I believe this is Pristine’s 1000th release; that’s quite an achievement when you consider that the label was established as recently as 2005.
Recently, I reviewed the first of four releases which will bring into the public domain for the first time a series of performances that Jascha Horenstein gave with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra during guest conducting visits in 1968 and 1969. That first release included performances of works new to the Horenstein discography but this second volume in the series gives us the third Horenstein performance of Mahler’s Fifth that Pristine has issued. In 2015 they issued a performance that he gave with the Berlin Philharmonic in August 1961 during the Edinburgh Festival (review). Then in 2019 they issued a 1958 performance which Horenstein recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra for broadcast by the BBC (review).
The present Gothenburg performance, given before an audience (though we only discover that from applause at the end) was Jascha Horenstein’s last appearance with the orchestra; it was also the last performance that he was to conduct of Mahler’s Fifth. The conductor’s cousin, Misha Horenstein, from whose archive this recording comes, tells us that the Gothenburg Symphony had not played the work since the 1940s. This made me wonder how much rehearsal time Horenstein demanded. (I recall being told by one of the participants that Horenstein took huge pains to prepare what was then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in Das Lied von der Erde: the magnificent, searching 1972 studio performance was the result.) It would not surprise me to learn that Horenstein also subjected the Fifth to extensive rehearsal in Gothenburg. I should say straightaway that this Gothenburg performance isn’t the most polished you’ll hear but, my goodness, it exudes commitment.
The opening pages of the first movement are big and dark, the playing very strong in spirit. The quicker episode (5:30) is very turbulent. Here one notices that, when playing loudly, the first trumpet is really too loud and penetrating; this is a recurring feature. The bold, dramatic performance of this movement is really compelling. So, too, is the second movement. The passages of fast music are strongly driven but even the cantabile episodes have a dark purpose, I feel. The long quasi-recitative passage for the cellos (4:47) is very pensive and spacious. It paves the way for an extended passage of expressive music which Horenstein takes very broadly; indeed, in lesser hands there might be a risk of the music becoming becalmed but instead the conductor’s magnetism carries the listener with him. Overall, this is a strongly projected, intense vision of the movement, one consequence of which is that when the brass chorale arrives it’s as if the clouds have parted, letting the sun shine through briefly.
The Gothenburg orchestra gives an agile account of the big Scherzo; Horenstein has clearly schooled them well so that the rhythms are nicely articulated. The orchestra’s first horn acquits himself very well. There’s plenty of life in the playing during the outer sections of this movement, while the reflective episodes are convincingly done. in common with Horenstein’s other two recorded readings, the celebrated Adagietto is spaciously done but not taken too slowly. Here, the Gothenburg strings really give of their best. The finale has terrific spirit. The playing isn’t infallible – for instance, there’s a nasty slip by the first trumpeter at 2:54 – and one wonders if the players were tiring by now; I gather they’d played the small matter of Liszt’s Mazeppa as a prelude to the Mahler. However, don’t let any technical failings detract from the sheer commitment of the performance. The degree of preparation they’d had is reflected in excellent attention to dynamics. The attention to detail in rehearsal also shows through in the clarity that Horenstein achieves in Mahler’s bustling counterpoint. He keeps a tight rein on the performance, pacing the music intelligently. When the great brass chorale arrives, you can sense the exultation; the orchestra has played out of its skin for Horenstein and there’s a feeling of achievement in the air.
In recent years, when orchestras were still able to tour, Mahler’s Fifth has become something of a calling card with which conductors and orchestras could show their mettle. There’s none of that here: this isn’t a sleek, virtuoso performance but it is an honest, hugely committed collective account of the symphony and I found myself caught up in it.
The sound in which this performance is conveyed is jolly good considering that the recording is 51 years old. The bass booms a little when the orchestra is playing loudly but on the other hand, the sound of the lower reaches of the percussion section registers satisfyingly. The recording gives a good view of the performance and Andrew Rose’s transfer has brought the sound up nicely. The recording is presented in Pristine’s Ambient Stereo. As usual with these Horenstein recordings, there’s a very useful note by Misha Horenstein.
Pristine now have three Horenstein performances of Mahler’s Fifth in their catalogue: which one should you choose? I’m going to ‘duck’ a final verdict but will offer some pointers instead. I think that the LSO studio performance, recorded by the BBC in 1958, has the best sound, even despite the sonic limitations which I noted in my original review, referenced above. The 1961 Berlin Philharmonic rendition has, on balance, the most polished playing, ahead of the LSO, but at times the sound crumbles or distorts under pressure. The Gothenburg sound is better than the Berlin Philharmonic account but the LSO recording is preferable. Being honest, both the LSO and BPO outdo the Swedish orchestra in terms of polish. But – and it’s an important but – I don’t think either of those distinguished orchestras outshines the Gothenburgers when it comes to dedication to the cause. So, this Gothenburg performance takes its place proudly in the Horenstein discography and I’m glad to have it in my collection.
It’s worth reminding Horenstein devotees that this Gothenburg mini-series will encompass four volumes. Volume 1 included Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (review). I’ve yet to hear Bruckner’s Sixth from 1968 (Vol 3) and Mahler’s Fourth, also from 1968 (Vol 4). It’s also worth noting that Pristine offer all four volumes as a set at a slightly discounted price (PABX034).