Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Reviews from other months
Anton BRUCKNER: Symphony No.8 & Symphony No.9*   London Symphony Orchestra / BBC Symphony Orchestra*  Jascha Horenstein BBC Music Legends BBCL 4017-2




In his liner notes to this second Horenstein release on BBC Legends, Bernard Keeffe wonders why German-speaking composers dominated music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He concludes that in Central Europe where East meets West “earthy energy” became controlled and refined by “the intellectual discipline of sophisticated society.” He illustrates the effect of this by citing a Sibelius quotation that to get electric power you need a dam as well as a torrent and extends the metaphor to Jascha Horenstein’s conducting . Horenstein, too, was a product by birth and upbringing of these forces so is it surprising, Keeffe wonders, that his conducting reflects this—earthy torrent refined and controlled by the dam of a sophisticated intellect. An apt metaphor representing a delicate creative balance.

It would be easy to compare Horenstein’s Bruckner with that of other distinctive stylists, but I prefer to consider what Horenstein’s Bruckner is, rather than what it isn’t, in reviewing this live performance of the Eighth Symphony from the 1970 BBC Proms. Here are many of the characteristics that made Horenstein’s music making so distinctive applied to the greatest of Bruckner’s works.

  • A grasp of the structure across the entire piece and within individual movements and, most important, how each fits in one with another to make a satisfying whole without subsuming emotion and expression—rather, setting them in relief.

  • A healthy respect for, but not a slavery to, the passing moment, achieved by modular tempi set at the start, barely deviating and then only gradually and without jolting.

  • A terraced, chamber-like sound palette where each section is balanced equally but never loses its identity: an orchestra that is the sum of its sections and sub-sections rather than one organic piece.

  • Joins and edges allowed to show and contrast, a limb with bones, sinews, and blood vessels clenched for activity, not resting in repose.

  • The long breath.

No other phrase is adequate for Horenstein’s ability to manipulate his material (and in Bruckner this is a supreme gift) over the longest of spans to encompass within the broadest of paragraphs parameters of, at one extreme, despair that never becomes self-indulgent and, at the other, ecstasy that never becomes histrionic. That long-breathed approach means his own emotional compass points, which are often narrower than those of some of his colleagues, are kept in mind by the listener allowing all shades in between to be more deeply appreciated because they are heard in the round. In Bruckner, as in much else, Horenstein was the philosopher-actor able to bend his distinctive voice into what ever composer he interpreted and yet always remain himself, art concealing art. The first movement of the Eighth Symphony shows all these attributes. This is very serious, sober Bruckner conducting, the interpretation of a man wedded to the belief that the music speaks for itself. But it also manages to be grand and mysterious Bruckner, dramatic but not melodramatic. Notice, for example, how the approach to the movement’s final tragic climax is built with a stern inevitability so that when the last, bleak fanfares blast out across what, we soon realise, is an especially desolate landscape, there is nothing forced or mannered. It emerges from within what has been a closely argued conflict where Horenstein notices thematic links between each of the tiny musical building bricks of which Bruckner is master. Like that between the opening figure of the whole symphony and the ascending one after bar 51. This is a small detail but on such details great interpretations can hinge. If a conductor is alive to detail as concentrated as this, the same will apply to the larger picture.

The scherzo of Bruckner’s Eighth has always been, for me, another example of Horenstein’s ability to pitch a tempo that fulfils everything the music asks for. (It was just the same in his old Vox recording from the 1950s with the Vienna Symphony. One of his other attributes was creative consistency.) Neither too fast nor too slow, it has forward momentum but it also has weight. Amazing how few conductors achieve this. It’s a delicate balance but is, I think, the most easily illustrated part of this work where the “dam” and “torrent” analogy used by Bernard Keeffe is in evidence. Here is drama that becomes cumulative on each rehearing of the main material. The Trio, too, is a miracle of poise and delicacy. Again the overall tempo is perfectly chosen so this interlude doesn’t split the structure of the movement but it isn’t thrown away either.

There are slower, more intense, more overtly romantic readings of the Adagio to be heard than this, but I think few that understand an aspect of the music I believe is often overlooked. I have always believed this movement is a meditation, not a confession, and this is borne out in the long opening paragraph. Horenstein couches this in one of his longest breaths so that, after it has risen to its first climax and settled back on to its harp-accompanied calm, the transition into the second subject group is seamless and promotes a mood of reflection and serenity rather than soul-purging indulgence. There is some lovely cello playing from the LSO here also. This is remarkable for its simple presentation of the material unencumbered by exaggerated gestures from the conductor to interrupt our mood. Horenstein’s unwillingness to do anything that stands in the way of a careful and inevitable unfolding means that all the way through, we do become aware of a dark, unobtrusive, but very profound undertow taking us along. Horenstein trusts Bruckner to lead him. The final ascent to the great climax of the movement (with the two remnants of its Nikisch-inspired cymbals) is inexorable and massive for seeming to have its roots right at the start. It’s only having arrived here do you realise Horenstein’s direct approach has paid the greatest dividend of all. He also justifies, if justification is needed, those crucial extra bars the Haas edition contains at this point. Note also his care to make sure we hear the inner voices, the middle strings, and the woodwind, both of which can be subsumed beneath the brass.

I always feel Horenstein had a special affection for the long coda that follows the climax. I used to feel this in the old Vox recording from which I learned the work and the same applies here. Another conductor might slow down but by resisting this, Horenstein delivers not a requiem, as in the corresponding place in the Seventh Symphony, rather an impression of “well-being,” hard won. For me this emerges as the true emotional core of the work. This kind of treatment changes subtly the way the last movement is judged and, by the way he conducts it, I think Horenstein thinks that also.

Surely the secret of the last movement is not to try to force a unity on it. This is a movement that has an episodic character which, when viewed in context of the coda to the slow movement that precedes it, emerges as the least troubled part of the whole work. Horenstein’s unobtrusively tight grip on tempo and dynamics doesn’t desert him. Notice the great poetry he draws from the wonderful descending theme at bar 51. How often have I heard this taken too fast to lose its elegiac quality, or too slow and so hold up the long journey to the triumphant end still in the far distance. Then there is the great pounding wall of sound that follows it, where Horenstein is careful to make us hear clearly all the parts in the orchestra at a tempo that fits with the movement but which is powerful enough for it to stay in our minds. Once again, his mind is sufficiently on the bigger picture. And has anyone managed such a wonderful ascent to the figures on the flutes that seem to close an episode and point the way home, the strings coaxed into a wonderful whisper of sound as though the players are just showing their bows to their instruments? I also admire the way Horenstein holds back in the last climax but one, where the music builds and builds and then rears up to herald the emergence of the first theme from the first movement prior to the last ascent of all at the coda. This means that when the all-conquering coda to the symphony does finally arrive, again built up to a huge and impressive crescendo that puts in mind Horenstein’s recording of Mahler’s Eighth, it hasn’t been overshadowed as a lesser conductor might have inadvertently done. It only remains to say the four themes in combination that mark the conclusion of the work are clearly audible; and that is not as common as you may think.

I believe that night, whilst acknowledging the applause of the full house in the Royal Albert Hall, Horenstein lifted his score into the air in triumph—the sort of gesture he was not usually given to. He must have been pleased with this performance. The audience certainly was, and so must the LSO, which played what sounds to these ears a faultless performance, willing to do exactly what was wanted of them, never flagging in their concentration, delivering a real ensemble performance. In the first half of this concert the wind principles had already given a performance of Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 K.361, so must have played themselves in rather than tired themselves out, because the woodwinds are one of the glories of this performance.

The recorded sound is bright, sharp, and possessed of enough hall atmosphere for everything from the great climaxes to the most intimate ruminations to be heard. This performance has appeared unofficially on disc before, notably an aircheck contained on a Music and Arts release. There is not that great a difference between the two, though the new official BBC release from the master tape has the edge in being at a slightly higher level and closer in with more detail.

In the context of a Bruckner Eighth of this quality the live performance of the Ninth that accompanies it was always in danger of being overshadowed and, it has to be admitted, this is the case. It was given by Horenstein at the Royal Festival Hall in London just three months later with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and it should have been as good. But there appears to be something not quite right. Firstly, the orchestra play well but they don’t play as well as the LSO. It’s as if they are not as confident in what they are doing, that they have doubts—the way some of the horn entries seem tentative, for example. Whilst the ensemble is good there is an impression of the routine about it. Don’t misunderstand: this is still a fine example of Horenstein’s art with many of the attributes I have outlined to be heard, it’s just that he doesn’t deliver them as well. The huge crescendo near the start of the first movement is underlined with remorseless power and the warmer second subject has a world-weary quality that sounds fatally sick and world-weary, all as it should be. But I do wish Horenstein could have lifted his overall tempo a little more over the whole movement. The great climaxes sprawl, seem to lack some point, and so the concentration flags sometimes. This movement is not Bruckner at his greatest. Had he lived I’m sure there are passages he would have changed and the conductor and orchestra must be on their absolute mettle to justify what is there; I don’t think they are here, not one hundred per cent. True under Horenstein, the coda of this movement does gather material together well as if, belatedly, the performance starts to catch fire at last. This impression is borne out in the second movement which is given a masterful performance. As in the scherzo of the Eighth, there is weight, power, and movement with the wild brass entries really telling through the texture and the weird trio containing all the creepy detail you could want.

For Robert Simpson the last movement is Bruckner’s way out from the terrors of the first two movements enacted in a search for tonality: tonality as safety and safety as a farewell to life. Horenstein seems to agree and rises to the occasion, but I have heard more cataclysmic deliveries of the final crisis than this, and from whom ? Well, from Horenstein himself. To hear what I was missing in this recording I had to look no further than Horenstein’s own 1953 recording for Vox (CDX2 5508 ) with the Vienna Symphony. Limited mono sound it may have, and less tonally splendid playing, but here is a Bruckner Ninth where every Horenstein attribute is splendidly realised. As in the Eighth, it’s won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is all there that time. The tempi are tighter overall too with the whole reading coming in eight minutes faster than the London one. The edges are sharper and the moments of repose and serenity are in starker relief. The orchestra also seems much more in sympathy with what their conductor is aiming trying to achieve.

I wouldn’t want negative reactions to this Ninth Symphony to dissuade anyone from buying this BBC Legends set. You will still have in your collection a fine and distinctive performance of the Ninth, but you will have to set it against a truly inspired one of the Eighth. Great conductors, even on “off nights,” are worth hearing and can be preferred over lesser talents. However, if you want to hear Horenstein’s interpretation of Bruckner’s Ninth at its very best then the Vox recording (coupled with an early Mahler First) is the one to have. The sound of the Ninth on this BBC issue is very clear and close, like the Royal Festival Hall tends to be, but Bruckner needs a little more sonority and depth, more air around the instruments.

A crucial addition to the Horenstein discography, therefore, with one of his greatest interpretations which demands to be heard by anyone who loves this work and this composer.


Tony Duggan


See here for a technical appraisal of this recording

FastCounter by LinkExchange


Tony Duggan


Return to Index