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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895-6) [89.37]
Kindertotenlieder (1901-4) [25:22]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-5 rev. 1896) [15:46]
Helen Watts (contralto)
Norman Foster (baritone)
Highgate School Choir, Orpington Junior Singers, London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra (symphony), Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (songs)/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Bamberg, September 1954 (songs), London, 16 November 1961 (symphony)
No texts or translations
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC565 [2 CDs: 130:39]

Horenstein recorded many other composers but is probably best remembered for his Bruckner and Mahler. He made comparatively few studio recordings for a conductor of his eminence, but then he had neither a permanent conducting position nor a regular recording contract for most of his life. However, since his death in 1973 a veritable treasure trove of live recordings has surfaced, initially on the now defunct BBC Legends label, and latterly on Pristine Audio where Andrew Rose’s remasterings have been widely praised.

The latest to arrive is this issue of the Mahler third symphony. This performance has actually been issued before on a different label (review) though this must be a new remastering. This version is of particular interest, as Horenstein’s studio recording of 1970 on the Unicorn label, also with the London Symphony Orchestra, although widely praised, never completely satisfied me. This was partly due to the balance of the orchestra, but also because it seemed to me to lack fire. I was relieved to see that Misha Horenstein in the booklet to this new issue has similar reservations, saying it had a ‘somewhat reserved air.’ What we have here is a live performance dating from 1961. This is apparently Horenstein’s second performance of the symphony, the first having been in 1953 in Rome. The sleevenote also says that it was the first concert performance of the work in the UK by a professional orchestra. (There had been a broadcast by the BBC SO under Boult in 1947, now available on Testament, and, apparently, a public performance under Bryan Fairfax on 28 February 1961 – if this is correct, it just pips Horenstein to this particular post.)

The performance was given at a particularly fortunate time. Ernest Fleischmann had just taken over the running of the orchestra, which had been at a low ebb. New principals had been recruited and the orchestra was on the up and keen to make a mark. There is certainly no lack of fire here. The huge first movement unrolls with an inevitability that makes all its numerous incidents seem essential, and Horenstein shows his particular ability to convey the character of each section while welding it into a coherent whole with the rest of the movement. The orchestra, who had never played the work before, play with a will and also a confidence that surprised me – maybe there had been, for once, sufficient opportunity for rehearsal, or Horenstein wielded some magic. Anyway, there is none of that bright blankness which can afflict British orchestras when sight reading new or unfamiliar works.

The short second and third movements are crisply pointed, with lovely work by the woodwind. The posthorn solo in the third movement is attractively though not entirely accurately played, I think on a flugelhorn, by Dennis Egan. In the fourth movement, the contralto solo is taken by Helen Watts, who was to go on to record it also under Solti; in Horenstein’s studio recording the part was taken by Norma Procter. Watts’s voice is wonderfully true and vibrant and Horenstein conjures an unearthly stillness out of the orchestra. The fifth movement, with the angels’ song, is the only one where I felt there were problems of balance: we have the contralto solo, the children’s choir (using two choirs here), the women’s chorus and the orchestra with added bells. Here I feel that the normally excellent BBC engineers, whose transcription tapes were used for this issue, allowed the texture to get confused. Amends are made in the slow finale, where Horenstein presses on and reaches a noble climax which well deserves the applause included at the end.

However, I need to point out that this appears to be a mono recording, and it also has a fair number of fluffs, particularly in the brass, and some solo entries are unduly spotlight. None of this need interfere with acceptance of this as an interpretation, and it would, in any case not be anyone’s first choice for a recording of the symphony.

The symphony is normally given two discs to itself, but here we are given two couplings, the song cycles with Norman Foster. These are studio recordings, from 1954, originally made for Vox. Horenstein described Foster as ‘simply marvellous’ but he used him only this one time. I think I can guess why: when you first hear his voice, you are carried away by its wonderfully rich chocolatey quality. However, you gradually realize that he has very little light and shade and that wonderful sound becomes monotonous. Set Foster against the early Fischer-Dieskau and there is no comparison. Still, Horenstein’s accompaniments are sensitive and, as a bonus, this is generous. The song cycles are sensibly placed before the first movement of the symphony, so that the pause Mahler wanted between this and the rest of the work is obtained by the need to change discs. The booklet is minimal and does not include texts. This is one for Horenstein collectors.

Stephen Barber

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