Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor [89.37]
Helen Watts (contralto)
Highgate School Choir, Orpington Junior Singers, London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. London, 16 November 1961
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op.15 [51.16]
Claudio Arrau (piano)
French Radio and Television Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Montreux, 17 September 1962
ARCHIPEL ARPCD 0557 [64.20 + 76.23]
This CD preserves a “never before released” live recording of the first professional British performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony in 1961. It was given under the baton of Jascha Horenstein, who did much to spearhead the revival of the composer’s music during the 1960s. In 1970, three years before his death, Horenstein returned to the score for a famous studio recording of the same work with the same orchestra as here. That version on Unicorn remained as one of the principal recommendations both on LP and CD for many years.
This live performance does not get off to a very promising start, with a fluffed note from one of the horns on the very opening beat, and it cannot be pretended that the sound is anything like as good as on Horenstein’s studio recording, with the low brass at 1.02 growling rather indistinctly. That said, the internal balance of the orchestra is good, and they deliver the music with the real joy of players discovering a new and unfamiliar score. The CD insert — it would be unduly charitable to call it a booklet — gives no information at all regarding either the music or its performance, but the acoustics are rather dry and leads one to deduce that the venue was the Royal Festival Hall; the 1970 recording was made in Fairfield Halls. The solo violin at 4.45 is placed very forward in the mono sound, which leads me to suspect close microphone placement presumably originating from a broadcast source. Dennis — spelt Denis on the CD cover credit — Wick’s trombone solo at 5.55 is very stentorian; the same player was more nuanced in 1970. Later on the internal balance of the orchestra becomes less than ideal, with the chirruping and squawking woodwind at 20.00 badly masked by the brass and what sounds suspiciously like panic-stricken recording engineers reducing recording levels. Unexpectedly the audience bursts in with applause at the end of the movement; maybe at the original concert the interval was taken at this point.
The second movement, with its much lighter scoring, produces fewer problems for the engineers. In the third movement Mahler wrote an extensive solo for an offstage brass instrument which he originally designated for the flugelhorn. In later revisions he changed the description of the instrument to “posthorn”, but this seems to have been a purely poetic change of title and the part is invariably played on the flugelhorn – as in Horenstein’s 1970 recording – although on the CD cover it is stated that Dennis Egan plays a posthorn. The balance between the offstage instrument and the onstage players is not ideal, but it does not appear that Egan manages all the notes with total accuracy, and there is a horrible trumpet error at 15.43 which sticks out like a sore thumb. Horenstein makes no pause before the fourth movement — the audience coughing between the second and third movements is given full measure — but the entry of Helen Watts is sheer balm. She recorded the part again in the studio for Solti some years later, in what is otherwise an unpleasantly blatant reading; Solti re-made the work for his complete Chicago cycle. Here in the very earliest days of her notable career she is firm as a rock and as implacable as granite in her declamation of Nietzsche’s Midnight Song from Zarathustra. And thankfully Horenstein has no truck with the exaggerated portamento in the woodwind phrases which Mahler may possibly have intended to imitate the wood birds of the night but which sound horribly and inauthentically modern in other performances. The orchestral deep brass sound murkier than might be ideal, and there are a couple of horn notes that are not perfectly steady; but this are minor blemishes in an enchanting performance.
Unfortunately there is a CD break between the fourth and fifth movements — Mahler asks that they should be played continuously — but this does avoid the sudden interruption in mood which would otherwise have been perpetrated by the very loud and forwardly-placed bells at the beginning of the Knaben Wunderhorn song. The choirs on the other hand are rather backward and far from distinct – although noticeably below pitch at 1.49 – but Watts is once again a tower of strength. This is a difficult movement to bring off in performance, and it is at this point in the recording that one is aware of a lack of familiarity with the score. The solemn entry of the strings at the beginning of the last movement brings a real sense of engagement even though the violin tone could be warmer. It is nice to hear the period style in the use of string portamento as specified by Mahler, an effect which became unfashionable for a time but is an essential part of the composer’s sense of line. Horenstein sometimes presses forward in a manner which he avoided in his later recording, but not beyond the bounds of acceptability; and although another trumpet glitch in the chorale theme at 16.09 is most unfortunate, Horenstein generates a real sense of white heat in the closing pages. The audience cheers at the end are well deserved.
Horenstein does not appear to have changed his view of the score much over the years; comparisons of timings in the movements show the first three rather slower on Unicorn nine years later, while the last three are slightly quicker. Overall he took some seven minutes longer over the score in 1970, a fairly minimal difference in a work of this length. Those who want to hear his interpretation of Mahler’s Third Symphony will gravitate towards the better sound and less accident-prone playing in 1970. But they will have to sacrifice Watts’s singing of the alto solos, richer and more nuanced than Norma Procter on Unicorn. On the other hand the singing in 1970 of the Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir and the Ambrosian Singers in the fifth movement is more assured and better balanced than the assembled choral forces were in 1961.
The Unicorn issue however comes without any coupling spread over two CDs, while here we are also given a very substantial bonus in the shape of Claudio Arrau’s performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto again with Horenstein conducting. Although the reading has plenty of fire from the opening bars, the recorded sound is much less satisfactory than in the Mahler with the orchestral playing decidedly thin in places, and the acoustic is unpleasantly boxy in the tutti passages. Recording engineers in the studio were getting much better results at this period. Mercifully Arrau is not placed too forward in the recorded balance, and we get a good impression of the sound of his piano. At this stage in his career Arrau was a more volatile and less monumental player than he became in his later years, and he forms a dramatic partner for Horenstein who – as in his contemporary recordings with Earl Wild of the Rachmaninov concertos – is a sympathetic accompanist. But the horn in the first movement at 9.31 is a particularly bad example of the weak and watery tone of French instruments at this period, sounding for all the world like a tremulous saxophone. If you like this sort of ‘national’ style of playing, you’ll love it; although you may be less impressed with the squeeze-box effect of the woodwind at the beginning of the slow movement. This was clearly a very great performance indeed, with which one is delighted to make acquaintance; but the orchestra and the recorded sound do rather let the side down.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: Brahms piano concerto 1 ~~ Mahler symphony 3
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