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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D major, Op 123
Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano); Norma Proctor (alto); Peter Pears (tenor); Kim Borg (bass); Hugh Bean (violin)
Leeds Festival Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra / Jascha Horenstein
rec. live, 11 October, 1958, Victoria Hall, Leeds (Leeds Town Hall).
Ambient Stereo

In 1958 as part of the centennial Leeds Triennial Music Festival a performance of Missa Solemnis was scheduled which Otto Klemperer was engaged to conduct. At short notice, Klemperer was obliged to withdraw: as Misha Horenstein relates in a note accompanying this Pristine release, Klemperer was taken ill with bronchitis and while he was unwell, he had an accident which left him with serious burns – the result, as I recall, of smoking in bed. The Festival engaged Jascha Horenstein to deputise. Misha Horenstein goes on to relate that the Festival Director, the Earl of Harewood, reassured the public at a press conference that the substitute conductor “knows the work well – one of the few conductors who do”. As the late Lord Armstrong might have put it, the Earl was being somewhat economical with the truth: Horenstein had never conducted the score!

On the strength of the Leeds performance, Horenstein was invited by the BBC to make a studio recording of the work. This took place in February 1961. The conductor asked for the same solo team that had served him so well in Leeds and he largely got his wish, though Richard Lewis replaced Peter Pears as the tenor. Back in 2004, the BBC Legends label issued a CD of that performance. I reviewed the disc and I nearly didn’t ask to review this Pristine release, thinking there might be a degree of duplication. How wrong I was. When I took the BBC recording down from my shelves I was astonished to see that whereas that performance has a playing time of 83:43, the Leeds performance took just 75:57 – the timing in the header to this revew includes a separate track lasting 1:04, which includes applause and the concluding BBC radio announcement.

As the table beneath shows, Horenstein’s first traversal of this mighty score was appreciably swifter overall in several of the movements.

Leeds BBC Studio
Kyrie 7:36 9:12
Gloria 16:01 17:43
Credo 20:11 22:22
Sanctus/Benedictus 16:27 17:01
Agnus Dei 15:41 16:55

In the Leeds performance, the Kyrie has due majesty but the music is moved forward with purpose. The later BBC version is more expansive and grander. The central ‘Christe’ section is taken very swiftly indeed in Leeds and, at least as recorded – the effect may have been better in the hall – there is some loss of clarity when the full ensemble is involved. The BBC version is much better in this respect.

At the start of the Gloria the chorus comes over well but the orchestra is much less clear; indeed, that’s a feature of this recording in loud passages. In the BBC recording, too, the chorus is dominant in these pages but the orchestra is more clearly heard. The Leeds Festival Chorus (LFC) does a sterling job. I liked the work of the solo quartet – I was not surprised to learn that Horenstein had asked for the same team for the London performance – and the ladies are particularly impressive. The fugue at ‘In gloria Dei Patris’ is sturdy and animated in the Leeds performance – things are a bit steadier and better defined in the BBC account – and the LFC sings really well. The ‘Amen’ goes like a whirlwind but the Leeds soloists and chorus cope – in fact they do much more than cope! In the BBC performance this section is taken a little more steadily and the soloists can be heard more distinctly; it’s a fervent performance but I don’t think that Horenstein quite replicated the sheer animal energy of the Leeds traversal.

The opening of the Credo is quite steady in both performances but the Leeds performance soon engages a higher gear, which I prefer. By this point I’d become seriously impressed by the singing of the LFC, whose members show great commitment. I wondered who was responsible for preparing them for this performance. Thank goodness Pristine retained the closing radio announcement for there we learn that the chorus master was Herbert Bardgett (1894-1962), the long-serving and renowned chorus master of the Huddersfield Choral Society. It would not surprise me if there had been a sizeable Huddersfield contingent in the LFC for this performance. The soloists continue to impress in the Leeds performance, not least in the passage from ‘Et incarnatus est’ onwards. To give an idea of the greater urgency in the Leeds performance, Horenstein got to ‘Et resurrexit at 9:54 whereas the same point was reached in the later performance at 11:54. I should make it clear, though, that I had no sense that the music was being rushed in Leeds; Horenstein probes under the music’s surface to find the emotional depth. The first fugue on ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ is taken quite swiftly– faster than in the BBC version - and the second fugue is very fast and sounds rather muddy in the Leeds Town Hall acoustic. (The BBC performance is similarly paced but has better clarity.) However, the members of the LFC sing heroically and the end of the fugue blazes with Yorkshire fervour. The rapt ‘Amen’ is very well handled by Horenstein in both performances; he gives the music a little more space in the BBC account.

The Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements are conceived in broadly similar terms in both performances. The soloists sing all of the Sanctus. The Philharmonia plays the Praeludium with due solemnity for Horenstein and then in the Benedictus we hear a seraphic violin solo from Hugh Bean. The Leeds solo quartet is very eloquent (as is the case in the later performance) and the choral contribution is good too. Horenstein is spacious in his treatment of the first few minutes of the Agnus Dei; Kim Borg is darkly imposing. Later, both Norma Proctor and Peter Pears make a strong impression, as does Teresa Stich-Randall when she joins in. There’s a dark dignity to Horenstein’s conception of these pages which I like very much. When ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is reached Horenstein’s approach is at first nicely lyrical but as the storm clouds gather, he ensures that all the drama comes out – the tense orchestral interlude is strongly projected, for instance. The closing pages of the work give great satisfaction in this performance.

I admired this Leeds performance very much. It’s often taut and urgent yet the more thoughtful slow passages are given full value. If you have the BBC Legends disc you will find better sound – the soloists can be heard to better advantage and more of the orchestral contribution is evident. However, I’d say honours are even between the solo quartets in each performance and the Leeds Festival Chorus need not fear comparison with the BBC Chorus. What I find fascinating, though, is the difference between Jascha Horenstein’s approach to the score in the two performances, given just over two years apart. Perhaps the extra urgency that characterises so much of the Leeds performance was inspired by the occasion and the presence of an audience. More likely, I suspect this very intelligent conductor used his first performing experience of this great, challenging score as a spring board to study it further and so deepen his understanding of it. We must not forget that he had to come to terms with the work at fairly short notice before conducting it for the first time. Nor should we overlook what a musical Everest the piece is for all performers but, above all, for the conductor. In both performances., albeit in different ways, I believe that Jascha Horenstein leads memorable interpretations of Beethoven’s towering choral masterpiece.

So, my advice would be that if you already have the BBC Legends disc you should also acquire this Pristine release because having both will give you an excellent perspective on the way a great musician’s interpretation can evolve over time and with experience. Furthermore, this Leeds performance is excellent and exciting in its own right.

Inevitably, the recorded sound has its limitations but it’s sufficiently good that the listener can get a very good appreciation of the performance and Andrew Rose has done a very good transfer. The recording comes from the archive of the conductor’s cousin, Misha Horenstein to whom all admirers of Jascha Horenstein will be grateful for yet another fine example of his work. I found the cover photograph very evocative. It was taken some years before my concert-going began but nonetheless it brought back memories of concerts I subsequently attended in Leeds Town Hall.

John Quinn

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