|Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.8 Joyce Barker, Beryl Hatt, Agnes Giebel, Kerstin Meyer, Helen Watts, Kenneth Neate, Alfred Orda, Arnold Van Mill, BBC Chorus, BBC Choral Society, Goldsmiths Choral Union, Hampstead Choral Society, Emanuel School Boys Choir, Orpington Junior Singers, London Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Jascha Horenstein Recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, London. March 20th 1959. BBC Legends BBCL 4001-7||
A history lesson first. In early 1958 the BBC, in the shape of Robert Simpson then a senior BBC executive, decided they would mark the centenary of Gustav Mahler's birth by mounting a cycle of his symphonies in 1960. Bernard Keeffe, also working at the BBC, was asked by Simpson to be in charge of some of the broadcasts. Then, in late 1958, the BBC's Third Programme (forerunner of Radio 3) found itself under budget for the year ending March 1959 and knew if the excess wasn't spent it would find its budget for the following year cut. Consequently Simpson and Keeffe were asked to come up with a project for the first half of 1959 to mop up the cash. They decided a broadcast of the most expensive concert item in the repertory; Mahler's Eighth would fit the bill and act as curtain raiser to their Mahler cycle the following year.
Keeffe had just five months to put the enterprise together and knew he was a man with problems. Firstly, hardly anyone in London knew the work. The last performance had been in 1948 under Boult and that had only been the third ever in Britain. He also had to find a hall, choirs, soloists and orchestra. Most crucially he had to find a conductor who could not only conduct the work but also teach the Mahler style to performers who, in 1959, were largely unfamiliar with it. One name stood out - Jascha Horenstein. Keeffe knew Horenstein's work, and crucially his Mahler, from pioneering Vox recordings and was delighted when he secured his services at such short notice. He must, however, have been aware that not even Horenstein had conducted the work before.
This is the background to the remarkable concert performance of March 20th 1959 preserved on these CDs. By then the London Symphony Orchestra had been engaged, the best choirs in London (which Bernard Keeffe would train), the composer/conductor Berthold Goldschmidt as Horenstein's "first lieutenant" and a team of superb soloists. In the latter case Keeffe engaged a full team of stand-ins. There were two reasons for this. With the parts so unfamiliar, Keeffe knew if any of the soloists became ill it would be impossible to engage replacements. It also mopped up more money, as also had the involvement of the BBC engineers who decided to attempt their first stereo concert relay.
The Royal Albert Hall had been hired as the only venue in London worthy of the event but only a Friday was available. This meant the largely amateur choirs would not be able to take part in a full rehearsal there in the morning of the concert so that took place with everyone crammed into the concert hall of the Royal College of Music the previous night. The actual performance was therefore the first time the whole ensemble of 756 musicians and singers (including, in the enhanced 130-piece LSO, Hugh Maguire as Concert Master, Neville Marriner leading the second violins, James Galway on the piccolo, Barry Tuckwell leading the horns and Gervase de Peyer the clarinets) actually performed any of the work in the Royal Albert Hall all together.
Bernard Keeffe went to wish Horenstein luck before he took to the platform on the night. He looked nervous. "I face the greatest artistic challenge of my career," he told Keeffe.
The concert itself and its live broadcast went into legend. It is said, with justification, that this was the event that began the Mahler boom in Britain, reinforced by the full cycle in London the following year (conducted by Horenstein, Barbirolli, Steinberg, Susskind and Boult). The reaction of the six-and-a-half thousand strong full house at the close of the work, vividly captured on these discs, is contemporary evidence enough.
The BBC recorded the concert and transcription discs went out to radio stations around the world. Unfortunately there was a glitch and the quality of the discs was impaired which did little to endear the recording to station managers. Then, for many years, it was never heard of again to the extent that many came to believe the BBC had either lost the master tape, destroyed it, or never even possessed it in the first place. Around 1970 I remember being told quite seriously that they had not bothered to record it at all. In the 1980s bootleg versions from the transcription discs started to appear on LP and then a CD version taken from those LPs. The quality of all these illegal issues was very poor but it confirmed what all the old British Mahler hands had said - here was a very great performance. It also added impetus for an official release, if only the BBC still had their original tape and would do the decent thing. At last, some pestering brought a letter in Gramophone magazine from the BBC. Not only did they still have the original tape well preserved they had also made a digital copy and were considering an issue. There were a couple of false starts but this was militated a little by a broadcast of that digital tape in February of 1997 where, at last, the quality of what the archives still held was plain to hear for anyone with two ears and a stereo tuner (and recording equipment!) Now, the BBC have at last issued a 20-bit remastered version as part of their new series of CD issues on their own label, BBC Legends, which represents, to quote the publicity material, "the official unlocking of the BBC archives" over the next three years. The first ten releases are available in the UK now and will go on worldwide sale early in the New Year.
Let's deal with the sound first. Having heard various airchecks and pirates of this down the years I thought the broadcast of February 1997 was as good as it would get, (taking into account the "limiting" used in FM broadcasts) but there is no doubt the remastering engineers have gone two, even three, stages further to produce a sound needing few apologies except to the most determined hi-fi fanatic. The remastering has been done by the same engineer who did the Millennium releases of the old Westminster catalogue, Marcus Herzog at Syrinx of Hamburg. Not surprising since the same executive producer, Mark Barrett, was responsible for that too. There is plenty of atmosphere conveyed with a good general sound picture that allows for a surprising amount of hall acoustic. The feeling is that you have a good seat well back in the hall and can see and hear everyone. The result is a splendid feeling of massed forces but with little or no distortion and no highlighting. Some may find the latter a bad thing, but I beg to differ. Gone is the booming base from the old pirate issues, but nevertheless there is also a satisfying clarity at the bottom end - organ pedal and bass drum especially - which contrasts well with the high end where the screech of piccolo (and the rest of the woodwinds) and the crash of cymbals is just as potent. Gone too is the impression of the sound "retreating" every so often in order to cope with sheer volume: as if the original balance engineer was having to fight to stop his microphones being overwhelmed. This latter point was certainly audible in the broadcast of the tape so I suspect it was something done on the night. Whatever, the remastering has succeeded in ironing things out and now it's possible to set one level on the volume control, leave it, and know everything from whispered pianissimo to critical mass (like at the climax of Part I with the return to Veni Creator Spiritus or the end of the closing hymn in Part II) will be heard in proper perspective.
There are drawbacks. There's a slight "fizz" at the high end, a certain brightness on the high violins and a tad "gruffness" to the organ. But that appears to be all, to these ears at least. The soloists are better balanced in Part I than in Part II. I suspect in Part I they were at the front of the platform, nearer microphones, then moved to the back of the orchestra in Part II and so were further away. No microphones appear to have been used to spot each singer and that's a problem at times. I believe only one stereo array was used high up in the roof so that, though there is a general feeling of stereo spread, there is little in the way of precise directional characteristics except in the off-stage brass which appear to come from high up and to the extreme right. Thrilling at the end of each part when they enter, by the way. But the credit side is that you hear everything clearly in proper proportion. In fact the overall balance is better here than in some more recent efforts where it is sometimes as if the engineers have tried too hard.
That impression of "going for it" is apparent right the way through the performance. There is not a moment in the whole work where you are not aware that everyone has simply decided the only thing to do is throw caution to the wind. The orchestra is inspired and the massed choirs sing out of their very socks. Not that Horenstein makes things easy for them, especially in Part I, as we shall see. But that ineffable something that can enter into the collective spirit of an ensemble, lifting their performance from the good to the great, is in them from the first chord through to the last and adds an extra dimension to the work, overriding any reservations there might be. It's also the case that pioneering performances and recordings often have a special quality to them.
A number of people have been in touch privately to say they find enjoyment of this performance marred by what one correspondent called an "earthbound" quality to Part I. As always there's room for personal preference, of course, but it's not the opinion I hold. However, it's one I think is worth pursuing because it throws light on this conductor's general method and goes some way to explaining why I find this account deeply satisfying. There's no denying that, so far as the opening is concerned, "Allegro impetuoso" it isn't. Horenstein is broader and grander than, say, Bernstein seven years later with many of the same musicians, (or Solti in 1972.) Though let me add neither is Horenstein so broad that he's in danger of losing momentum from the other direction like Maazel, Shaw or Morris. His choice of tempo is balanced perfectly within his own philosophy of what it is to conduct a work like this. One of Horenstein's most striking fingerprints, even more so in pieces with long spans, is an almost miraculous ability to unerringly pick one overall tempo that suits the whole piece but which nevertheless allows the right degree of expression into those parts that ask for them. When a piece begins, and Part I of Mahler's Eighth is as good an example as any, you sense Horenstein has the whole span in his head even before it starts. It's this area of his art which, I believe, sometimes leads people to brand him dull or "earthbound". My reply is that it's appreciation of this area of his art that grows with time. He never gives you an easy way in to anything, but, like monuments built on the firmest foundations, the finished edifices last longer because they haven't given in to passing fashions. For me his less "impetuous" account of Part I creates a unique excitement and power because it's cumulative: built up and built up inexorably as the piece progresses, an inevitable tidal wave by the end that stays in the mind because it starts from the very depths and is only varied to extents that are within the tolerance of the whole. What Bernstein and others (Tennstedt, for example) also indulge in in this work (and which Horenstein doesn't because his philosophy doesn't allow it) is to read too much into Mahler's other markings, e.g. "don't hurry", "hold back" etc. The result is that the kind of cumulative forward projection over the long span that Horenstein offers, and which I believe offers greater dividends, is sacrificed to the thrill of the moment and so satisfies only for the moment. When Bernstein, for example, sees "espressivo" he takes it as a signal to pitch camp for the weekend, breaking the momentum he might have set up with his "impetuoso" allegros. It may knock you out on first hearing but, over time, I think it becomes irritating in addition to spoiling the sense of momentum. But Horenstein, with his modular tempo and minimal interventions, doesn't need to indulge in expressive tricks and therefore momentum, structure AND expression become organically integrated to an extraordinary degree. So close and so profound you cease to notice them: a true example of "art concealing art".
A big test for a performance of the Eighth is the unforgettable outburst midway through Part I at bar 262, "Accende lumen sensibus" because it's clear from what few early notes Mahler left for the composition that this is of crucial importance to the entire work, not just Part I. I can't resist pointing out a connection between the arrival of this moment and the climax to the third movement of the Fourth Symphony: the flinging open of the gates to Heaven. Both cases involve a shift to E to bring in a new world, which is, on both occasions, a world of the soul's Redemption. In the Eighth, the arrival of the chorus is first ushered in by the sound of all eight horns, "bells up" for even more emphasis, roaring out one of the crucial opening ideas whose initial appearance had been on trombones just after the choir announces "Veni creator spiritus" at the start. The effect of this is twofold. First, it creates a very theatrical entry for the choir's great shout of "Ah.....CENde" etc. Second, this latter idea on the horns will recur throughout the whole symphony and therefore form an insoluble link between "Veni Creator" and "Accende lumen" in Part I as principal engine for Aspiration, and then later in its appearances in Part II for Redemption, thus linking the two Parts of the work through two ideas even deeper. So the arrival and execution of "Accende lumen sensibus" must be one of the real highlights of the work and, under Horenstein, it certainly is, but in its own way. With his choice of an ideal overall tempo, he doesn't need to slam on the breaks for the preparatory horns. There is, by then, enough forward momentum built up behind him to lift the great chorus and push it forwards. And Mahler actually helps him soon afterwards. Notice how at the second statement of "Accende lumen sensibus" Mahler leaves out any reprise of the horn introduction and the result is an inner dynamic built into the music that pitches us forward with no need for extra emphasis by the conductor. All Horenstein has to do is hang on to his established tempo and he inherits what Mahler has given him. It makes this moment even more telling because the power comes out of the music and isn't imposed on it. It's a perfect example of how Horenstein could read a score and use it to the service of the music. You can also hear the organ underpinning in ideal proportion as the superb choir fling out the words with reckless abandon right through this extraordinary section.
When the chorus finally unwinds to land on the recapitulation of "Veni creator spiritus" at figure 63, there's still no need for Horenstein to slow down for effect. He has managed to give us grandeur AND excitement all at the same time and allowed each crucial theme and moment to have its effect. So the arrival of the recapitulation has about it here an inevitability rather than a sense of shock which Mahler surely intended it to have. I must also say the volume of sound this old recording produces at this moment is now overwhelming. Not loud, so much as a mass of sound.
The short orchestral section bars 488-507 is as good an early example as any of the power the LSO produced throughout this performance and when the chorus rejoin them with their "Glorias" the sense of momentum only increases. As ever, Horenstein resists any temptation to vary his approach. Often the coda is spoiled by the conductor increasing his tempo and rushing the end with the result that you lose the sense of all the themes being gathered together. The final pages of all in Part I, with the thrilling entry of the offstage brass to the extreme right and the thump of some old fashioned timps, the hairs on the back of my neck always tingle even though I have heard this recording many times.
Many people have problems with the Eighth. It seems to defy its place in Mahler's output. For many people who enjoy just about everything else that Mahler wrote, the Eighth is "a symphony too far". I believe if we're going to come to terms with the Eighth we had better see it as the culmination of a particular genre in his output that began with Das Klagende Lied and continued in the later parts of the Second and Third Symphonies where he diverges radically from even his idea of basic symphonic scheme. In doing so we must see this strand of his work as representative of a specific anthology technique in which dramatic cantata, orchestral song, opera, passion and sacred oratorio become gathered together under the broadest of symphonic umbrellas. Also, since this is Mahler, that trait in all his work of significant recall from his own works must also become part of the technique of which the Eighth is the culmination.
I think this becomes a crucial determinant of Horenstein's overall approach to Part II. Freed up from any closer adherence to the idea of a symphony in the usual sense, the long span which is the crucial structural determinant of Part I is now broken down into constituent parts, leaving only the necessity for acknowledgement of what it is in each succeeding section Mahler is anthologising; and that each section should grow organically out of the previous one with only the basic ideas of the work, aided and abetted by the Faust text, to impose unity.
Horenstein sees the orchestral prelude to Part II, therefore, not as the "slow movement" as some do, but as a real Prelude to the "drama of the mind" which is to follow. I'm sure this influenced his choice of tempi, quicker than some, and the sheer passion he invests the more animated sections of this music with that is then possible. There is tremendous yearning here, especially from the horns, when the music bursts out of its inner ruminations. It's also the kind of playing that you tend only to hear in live recordings. I also like the way the woodwind cut through the texture when the chorus enter - like malevolent birds squatted in the trees overlooking the wild landscape where Goethe's drama is played out. When the score calls for it the recording allows too for the most whispered of pianissimi which contrasts wonderfully with the massive sound of Part I which is still in our minds. There are some intrusive coughs from the audience in these passages, but they just have to be endured.
At bar 219 Pater Ecstaticus begins the first solo of the whole work, singing of the power in the rapture that Love, the ultimate determinant in Faust's redemption, brings. I felt with Horenstein a real sense that we had moved from one mood to another, confirming immediately his awareness of the anthology technique Mahler is employing - from sacred to secular in one bound. Alfred Orda is backwardly placed but he still sings with the passion Mahler asks for and underlies another important aspect to this symphony, even more important in Part II: that this is Mahler in public style to an extent that he never was before and never would be again. He did let slip a remark to Richard Specht that he regarded the Eighth as "a gift to the whole Nation", so is it any surprise that sometimes simpler, more immediately accessible, techniques are employed in Part II? At 266, Pater Profundus is next. He describes the scene of rocks, woods, forests and the elements that play around them. Horenstein and his soloist Arnold Van Mill rightly see this as a tiny symphonic poem with voice, even more Wunderhorn-like. Note here too the use by Mahler of the trombones to indicate primal nature, acknowledged by Horenstein as a recall of the same instrument's place in the Third and Seventh Symphonies.
The entry of the Angels carrying the immortal part of Faust, and also the Blessed Boys who seem to worship the miracle of immortal survival, is another natural development under Horenstein and so too are the apparently different sounds he manages to invest into each of the children's choirs. The feeling is that they are coming to us from high up and way back yet every word can be made out clearly. The special attention Horenstein brings to the children shows me he is aware of their importance in the scheme of the work. Where the Blessed Boys sing:
Freudig empfangen wir
here are clear links to be made from this cluster of ideas to the Third Symphony's fifth movement with the children singing of Morning Bells and to the Fourth Symphony last movement of the child's view of heaven. (There is a whole cluster of ideas buried within this remarkable passage that tells us so much of what Mahler is trying to do in this work, far too many to go into here.)
At bar 639 Doctor Marianus's praise of Mater Gloriosa (the Eternal Feminine who represents the Love by which Faust will be redeemed) is almost the "Prize Song" of the work and is suitably enraptured, holding no fears for Kenneth Neate who is the star singer of this recording for me. And what a build-up he gives Mater Gloriosa. Note also the wonderful string accompaniment. Anyone who thinks Horenstein a "sober" conductor should listen to this to have their minds changed. No praise can be high enough for Hugh Maguire's violin solo, either.
Mater Gloriosa's arrival at bar 758 can too often sound sugary. In fact the sound that Mahler asks for - strings with harmonium and harp - is a unique one and is saved from bathos by Horenstein's simple and direct treatment of it. Another example of him knowing when to do nothing extra to the music.
"Very flowing, almost hurried. Like a whisper" is Mahler's marking for the trio of three women in deep sin and Horenstein observes this perfectly. In fact, I was reminded of the Three Boys in The Magic Flute and this passage shows Horenstein's light touch too which is carried forward to the entry of the mandolin at bar 1093 for the song of Una Potentium where he gets his player to point the rhythm beautifully. There is a dance-like quality to many these passages. I do recall an interview with Horenstein when he spoke of hearing as a young man Das Lied Von der Erde for the first time and being more fascinated by the presence of a mandolin on the platform than of anything else that he heard that night.
By the arrival of "Blicket Auf" at bar 1277 (Kenneth Neate again magnificent as Doctor Marianus, encouraging us to look to she who will transcend and befriend us) I really felt I was in the hall with these players, sharing in this unique experience, even feeling with them the strain of presenting this extraordinary work in what must have been a test of endurance AND artistry. The balancing of the parts in the remarkable section leading up to the slow transition with harmonium, celeste, piano and harps to usher in the Chorus Mysticus is masterly. By now it's almost as if the performance has moved into an even higher sphere.
So to the Chorus Mysticus and we (and these performers) are almost home. This is the goal to which the whole work has been aiming, the goal towards which Faust has been propelled. In the course of this chorus and the work's postlude Mahler ties together the Accende Lumen, Veni Creator and Mater Gloriosa themes to signify journey's end and so does Horenstein, triumphantly. But to say he does only that is to sell the Chorus Mysticus in this recording short because it's a whole lot more than that. The astonishing crescendo of the final chorus conducted by Horenstein, from whispered quiet at the beginning to astounding mass at the close, has always been the greatest glory of this performance, apparent even on the inferior versions we have had to put up with in the past. The way he holds on to his very slow tempo, building inexorably as the music rises, is beyond belief. When the final orchestral postlude does arrive, with the "Veni Creator" theme from the first part exultant, the power is almost visceral and the recording copes with everything without strain: cymbals, tam-tam, organ and off-stage brass raining down on us.
The eruption of cheering as soon as the work ends signifies a whole lot more than just the end of a concert. Here was an experience which I'm sure everyone present would not have missed living through and it's one which I earnestly advise ALL of you not to miss either. There were always excuses before - inferior recording quality, difficult to find - but not now. If you buy no other Mahler recording for the next year, please make sure it's this one. From now on, this is my own top recommendation for Mahler's Eighth.
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