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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde [62:08]
Birgit Finnilä (contralto) James King (tenor) Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein rec. live 21 November 1968, venue not specified
Texts not included
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin – Prelude Act 1 [8:39]
Lohengrin – Prelude Act III [2:59]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Overture [8:36]
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude [10:43]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Heinrich Hollreiser
Originally released 1959
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS 10410 DVD-A/CD [93:08]

In 2000, the BBC Legends label issued a performance of Das Lied von der Erde recorded for the BBC in 1972 by Jascha Horenstein. His soloists were Alfreda Hodgson and John Mitchinson and the orchestra was the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (later re-named the BBC Philharmonic). I bought it when it was released and it has since occupied a place of honour in my Mahler collection. I regard it as one of the truly great readings of the work, fit to be ranked alongside Otto Klemperer’s 1960s EMI recording (review) and Rafael Kubelik’s live 1970 version (review). I was not surprised to find that Ralph Moore wrote warmly about it in his recent survey of recordings of Das Lied.

The BBC Legends release was not the first outing on disc for the 1972 Horenstein recording. In an earlier incarnation it had attracted the admiration of Tony Duggan in his survey of recordings of the work. Re-reading Tony’s comments, his summary rang very true for me and I think it’s worth quoting what he had to say. “This was a special work to Horenstein who first heard it in Vienna in 1918 conducted by Mengelberg. He was never the conductor for the easy option, though. He expected an enormous amount from everyone, including the listener, and it is the case that many of his recordings don't reveal their secrets on first encounter and that is the case here. I really cannot recommend this recording too highly. It's one for the long haul, one that will reveal its greatness over time. Some may find Horenstein's tempi, especially that for the first song, on the slower side of acceptable. For me the tempi are natural and what is more important there's never any strain in the playing or the singing because of it. It's clear an immense amount of preparation went into this and that the decision to perform without retakes paid dividends. The sound is analytical, tailored for broadcast, but this only accentuates Horenstein's way with the chamber textures with every detail is exposed by his gimlet eye. This is a performance that penetrates to the very core of this work, the time in which it was written and the man who wrote it. It reaches to the core of the listener also. The orchestra is the only weak link. They play well and have the benefit of being the clean sheet on which Horenstein wrote his interpretation but they don't have the corporate elan of one of the great international ensembles.” I agree with so much of that and I know what Tony meant in his description of the orchestra’s playing. However, it's always seemed to me that even if the playing sometimes lacks the sheen of some of the leading orchestras that one has heard in this work, the response of the BBCNSO radiates sincerity and commitment. I was informed by someone who took part in the performance that Horenstein more or less taught the orchestra the work from scratch. More revealingly, I was told by the same person that as ‘Der Abschied’ drew to a close there were many moist eyes among the players.

So, Jascha Horenstein gave us a great recording of Das Lied. There the matter rested until very recently when, through Misha Horenstein, the conductor’s cousin, I learned of the existence of an earlier Stockholm performance which the HDTT label has just released. Naturally, I was eager to hear it.

HDTT have issued the recording in three formats. There is a digital download, which I have not heard, and there are also two physical disc options: a DVD-audio disc and a standard CD version. For this review I have focussed mainly on the DVD-A but I have also listened to the CD set. You can find details of all the different options that are available on the HDTT website.

Before considering the performance, I think I should address one issue regarding the recorded sound. HDTT’s booklet note has been written by John Haley of Harmony Restorations, who has digitally mastered and restored the recording. He makes this comment: “The one small liability in this otherwise well balanced live recording is that the two soloists are caught from a slightly distant perspective – a commercial recording would certainly have mic’ed them closer up”. That’s a very frank comment to make and I must admit that the first time I listened to the recording I was slightly disconcerted by hearing James King’s voice slightly distanced in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’. It is true that, as Mr Haley indicates, we are accustomed to hearing the soloists more forwardly in a studio recording or even in a broadcast performance – and in Horenstein’s BBC recording the two soloists are more “conventionally” heard in this respect. However, I cast my mind back to the occasions when I’ve heard the work live in the concert hall; often the tenor in particular struggles against Mahler’s scoring. I was intrigued to see that the sound engineer for the original recording was Robert von Bahr, later the founder of the BIS label. I believe it’s his mantra that BIS records what’s there; in other words, his engineers seek to convey a natural balance. I think that’s what we have here; the recording probably gives a fair representation of what the audience heard that evening. I found that I soon adjusted to this balance, whether listening through loudspeakers or headphones. So, yes, it’s true that you won’t hear the soloists with quite the degree of prominence that is usual in a commercial recording and it’s appropriate to be forewarned by HDTT, but I honestly don’t think that the balance detracts significantly from the listening experience.
 
Horenstein’s soloists can both be heard on other recordings of Das Lied. Birgit Finnilä sang for Kurt Sanderling on his 1983 recording, and though she sings intelligently and with sincerity I agree with Nick Barnard’s verdict that she’s no match for Dame Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig. It should be said, though, that Tony Duggan was somewhat more appreciative. James King went on to sing for Bernard Haitink in his 1975 Philips studio recording. I admire this performance overall, though I agree with Ralph Moore’s judgement in his survey that Janet Baker, the other soloist was even more fulfilling in the live Kubelik recording. King was also the tenor soloist for Leonard Bernstein in his 1967 Vienna Philharmonic recording, which was one of the earliest to use two male soloists. I’ve never heard that recording but I see Tony Duggan expressed some reservations about King’s singing, finding it somewhat tiring to hear in Bernstein’s “roller-coaster ride” of a performance.

It’s been a fascinating exercise to compare the two Horenstein performances. One interesting feature is that in his 1972 performance he frequently took a slightly more expansive view of the music compared with the 1968 traversal. As a result, the 1972 performance plays for 69:34 whereas in 1968 the playing time is 62:08, including a few seconds of applause. I should hasten to say that the later performance never sounds too slow; some of the 1972 speeds were a bit broader but the chief factor is that in Manchester Horenstein often allowed himself a little more space or made a fraction more of rallentandi to bring out expressive points in the music.

‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ is a case in point. The 1972 Manchester performance plays for just over one minute longer. I like the urgency that was evident in Stockholm in 1968 but, on the other hand, I think the later performance is more expressively nuanced by Horenstein. It also seems to me that the BBC Northern SO dig into some of the accents more acutely than their Stockholm colleagues had done and overall Horenstein’s reading seems even more detailed in the later performance. (Did he get quite as much rehearsal in Stockholm, I wonder?) The two singers are quite different. James King has a rather more rounded tone than John Mitchinson, Horenstein’s tenor in 1972. Some may prefer King’s fuller sound but I think the greater degree of edge in the British tenor’s voice is an asset. Furthermore, Mitchinson seems to me to make more of the words, and at key points he’s more expressive in his delivery – I think of the three occasions when the tenor sings ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ and also ‘Das Firmament blaut ewig…’ The BBC studio balance allows more of the tenor part to come through in the tortured passage ‘Seht dort hinab! Im Mondschein auf den Gräbern…’

Staying with the tenor songs, in ‘Von der Jugend’ I appreciate the light, pointed orchestral playing that Horenstein achieves in Stockholm. In the 1972 performance he adopted a fractionally easier pace and this allows John Mitchinson to articulate the words rather more clearly than James King. Additionally, there were one or two occasions when Mitchinson seemed a little more comfortable with Mahler’s vocal line and I think his delivery overall is lighter and wittier than King’s. King gives a very good account of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, as does Mitchinson. Between the singers I think honours are about even in this song but Horenstein seems to bring a slightly lighter touch to the music in Stockholm and I like that.

Questions of balance between singer and orchestra are less likely to arise in the other three songs because much of the scoring is lighter. The first thing that strikes me in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ is the excellence of the Stockholm Phil’s oboist; we shall encounter that player again making a very fine contribution in ‘Der Abschied’. Birgit Finnilä  sings very well, but I feel that in 1972 Alfreda Hodgson sang with even fuller tone and a greater degree of expression. Her lower register also seems more strongly produced than that of her Swedish colleague. There’s quite a noticeable difference in the conducting: in 1972, Horenstein’s approach was more spacious – his performance takes one minute longer – and that has a beneficial effect on the music, I think. That’s a subjective view, though; other listeners may prefer the more flowing approach that he adopted in 1968. When we get to ‘Von der Schönheit’ I think that it’s a dead heat between the singers; both are excellent. Horenstein and the Stockholm Phil inflect the orchestral accompaniment beautifully.

The ominous chords with which ‘Der Abschied’ opens have cavernous depth in the Stockholm recording. I mentioned earlier that the Stockholm Phil’s principal oboist makes a distinguished contribution in this song; so does the principal flautist. Both singers rise to the challenge of Mahler’s great song but one factor which inclines me to favour Alfreda Hodgson is the greater clarity of her diction; indeed, in all three songs the words are more distinct in her performance than is the case with Birgit Finnilä. It’s true that Miss Hodgson is recorded more forwardly but I don’t think it’s just microphone placing that accounts for the difference between the two artists. I find a lot to admire in Birgit Finnilä’s singing in ‘Der Abschied’ but at several key points Alfreda Hodgson has the expressive edge. For example, she’s more veiled, as the text demands, in her delivery of ‘Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort’. A little earlier, at ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens’, Hodgson’s singing is deeply felt; unfortunately, at this point Finnilä is a bit overpowered by the orchestra so it’s less easy to appreciate what she brings to the vocal line. Birgit Finnilä sings with fine feeling at ‘Ich wandle nach der Heimat’, and even more so at ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ but Alfreda Hodgson is even better – the top register of her voice wonderfully produced – with the right degree of yearning in her delivery. Overall, I feel that she penetrates the music of this extraordinarily intense song more deeply than Finnilä. ‘Der Abschied’ is the prime example of Horenstein’s more expansive approach in 1972. The Stockholm performance plays for 28:43 (which includes applause, swiftly faded out) whereas the Manchester performance took 31:59. It has to be said that the Stockholm timing is closer to what we are accustomed to hearing – Klemperer, for example, took 29:33 – but the Manchester performance never feels too slow. Horenstein allows himself just a bit more space throughout the reading, and especially from the start of the Wang-Sei poem (‘Er stieg vom Pferd…’); I find that his expansive approach works beautifully; he sustains the intensity of the music from start to finish. On the other hand, it has to be said that the sheer impact of the recorded sound and the extra tonal weight of the Stockholm Phil makes the extended orchestral interlude even compelling in the 1968 performance than in 1972.

So, how to sum up these two performances? The Stockholm performance is presented in sound that has much more presence and impact than the 1972 BBC recording and the hall acoustic is more open than that of the hall used by the BBC. You hear the soloists more clearly in the BBC recording. Both orchestras play really well for Horenstein; the Stockholm Phil is somewhat more polished but the commitment of the BBC Northern SO is palpable. On balance, I prefer Horenstein’s British soloists, especially Alfreda Hodgson, but no one hearing Birgit Finnilä and James King is likely to feel short changed. Horenstein’s conducting is superb in both performances but I prefer the more expansive approach he adopted in Manchester. Incidentally, though the Manchester performance was recorded under studio conditions, without an audience, I was told by Misha Horenstein that the songs were recorded in order and without retakes; so, I think we can say that the performance is ‘as live’. My personal allegiance to the 1972 performance remains unshaken but I’m delighted to have this 1968 recording to complement it. To the best of my knowledge the BBC Legends recording is no longer available, so the appearance of this HDTT release is especially welcome. Even if you already have the BBC performance in your collection the HDTT version is well worth your attention.

For good measure, HDDT throw in four orchestral Wagner excerpts. Its not known when or where they were recorded but the performances were first released in 1959 by Tandberg SMS Tapes. It had been thought that these performances, too, were conducted by Jascha Horenstein but it’s now known that the conductor was the German, Heinrich Hollreiser (1913-2006). The performances are good – I rather like Hollreiser’s sprightly approach to the Meistersinger overture, for example, and he doesn’t take the Prelude to Lohengrin Act I too slowly, yet he still conveys the atmosphere. The sound is bright and has presence but the recording is starting to show its age; loud passages become somewhat diffuse. I should warn that HDTT have been insensitive in one aspect of presentation. There are minimal gaps between each of the four items and the greatest casualty of this is the Act I Lohengrin Prelude. The magically soft ending has scarcely finished than its ‘noisy neighbour’ from Act III crashes in to dispel the atmosphere rudely.

I mentioned at the start of this review that HDTT offer these recordings in various formats. I did most of my listening using the DVD-audio disc; both through headphones and loudspeakers I got excellent results. In the Mahler, the sound is clear, present and has impact; a welcome amount of detail is readily audible without any hint of artificial highlighting. The CD sound was also extremely good.

This is a very welcome addition to the discography of Jascha Horenstein.

John Quinn




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