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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor [89:41]
Helen Watts (contralto); Dennis Egan (posthorn); Denis Wick (trombone);
Highgate School Choir; Orpington Junior Singers; London Symphony Chorus;
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec live 16 November 1961, Royal Festival Hall, London
Kindertotenlieder [25:22]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [15:46]
Norman Foster (baritone);
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. September, 1954, Dominikanerbau, Bamberg, Germany
Texts & translations not included
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC565 [71:08 +59:38]

There are many fine recordings of Mahler’s Third in the catalogue, and a handful of great ones. Among the latter category I would place Leonard Bernstein’s first recording, made in 1961 (review), Klaus Tennstedt’s 1986 live performance (review) and Jascha Horenstein’s Unicorn recording, which was made with the LSO in July 1970 (review).

This present release documents a very important occasion: the first public performance of the Third Symphony in the UK by a professional orchestra. The work had been played back in 1947 by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (review) and I understand from the previous review of this release by my colleague Stephen Barber that there was a London performance earlier in 1961: perhaps that was given by an orchestra that was not fully professional. In these days of abundant Mahler performances, it comes as something of a shock to realise that it’s less than 60 years since this landmark performance took place. Just as astonishing is the fact that the LSO had never played it before This recording has been issued by another label in the past but I’ve not heard that transfer (review).

We learn from the notes by his cousin, Misha, that Horenstein first conducted the Third in 1953. In those days, of course, opportunities to conduct Mahler symphonies in general, and this particular symphonic behemoth in particular, were nowhere near as frequent as is nowadays the case; so, this 1961 concert was only his second performance of the score. Just recently, I had the opportunity to review a Horenstein concert performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis from 1958. It was instructive to compare it with a studio recording of the work that he made for the BBC some two years later, which took nearly eight minutes longer. Similarly, his view of Mahler’s Third became rather more expansive, as a comparison of the timings of this present performance and the 1970 recording suggests. As with the Beethoven, it’s relevant to note that we’re comparing a live performance in front of an audience with a later one set down under studio conditions

Movement 1961 concert 1970 Unicorn studio
I 30:03 33:28
II 8:41 9:11
III 16:18 18:14
IV 8:46 8:38
V 4:03 4:44
VI 21:40 22:52
Total 89:41 97:15

As the table suggests, there’s rather more urgency in Horenstein’s 1961 account of the huge first movement. In many ways, I like this; there’s a Bernstein-like swagger when the march is in full swing, for example. Indeed, Horenstein is almost impetuous at times and the performance has a heady feel to it. There are occasional flaws in the playing but overall, the LSO sounds very confident. In many ways, I find the urgency of Horenstein’s approach compelling. That said, in the Unicorn recording he negotiates some corners more smoothly and he holds back at certain key moments, though in no way excessively. These interpretative nuances plus greater security in the playing mean that the impression one gets is that the Unicorn performances is the more polished affair, as one would expect. In the 1961 performance, though, Horenstein very successfully conveys in spades both the exuberance and the power in the music. The headlong conclusion is so exciting that it draws considerable applause.

In the 1961 performance the initial pacing of the second movement seems a little hasty to me – it seems to lack charm - but the tempo soon settles down and in truth I don’t think there are significant interpretative differences between Horenstein’s two readings. There are occasions where I wish he had lingered just a little but the performance is still a good one. His treatment of the third movement is swifter than would be the case in 1970; I like his sprightly approach, though. The stopwatch points the difference: in 1961 Horenstein arrived at the first entry of the posthorn at 5:24 but this point is reached just a little later – at 5:57 – in the studio version. The real difference between the two versions arises in the nostalgic posthorn episode itself; Horenstein was much more spacious in the studio recording. In 1961 that passage plays from 5:24 to 9:29 but the conductor took around a minute longer in 1970 (5:57 – 10:55). I can see an argument for both approaches: the studio version is dreamily nostalgic; the concert performance is also nostalgic but has more purpose to it. In the 1970 version William Lang played the crucial solos on a flugelhorn; did he, I wonder?. According to the Pristine documentation, in 1961 Dennis Egan used a posthorn. Egan, who plays well, is distanced from the orchestra but still sounds much more ‘present’ than Lang, who is magically distant.

In 1970 Horenstein had Norma Proctor as his soloist in the next two movements. She sings very well but Helen Watts, who sang in 1961, is even more compelling, her tone rich and lustrous. The 1961 choirs sang with alacrity for Horenstein but their tuning isn’t entirely infallible; the 1970 choral contribution is much more secure. Incidentally, in the concert performance the sixth movement follows the fifth without a break.

Although the clock tells us that Horenstein was a bit quicker in his 1961 account of the vast finale, don’t worry. Both interpretations are deeply satisfying, though there are unfortunate brass fallibilities in the concert performance; it had been a long night. What matters, though, is the conductor’s vision of the music. He conceives the movement spaciously from the outset and throughout its course his conducting is admirably focussed. The result is a noble, dedicated reading. From the start of the quiet trumpet chorale (15:10), the closing minutes have a Brucknerian breadth and majesty that even a momentary fluff by one trumpeter can’t spoil. At the end, the performance receives what was clearly a huge ovation; it was richly deserved.

As a filler, Pristine offer studio recordings, made for the Vox label, of two of Maher’s song cycles. Actually, these precede the first movement of the symphony on disc 1, which means that we get the other five movements of the symphony without a break; a sensible arrangement. The soloist in both cycles is Norman Foster; I don’t think I’ve heard him before. Misha Horenstein tells us that his cousin rated Foster and Misha himself opines that Foster was “possessed of a deep, rich, well-supported voice with good diction but a somewhat limited upper range.” I think that judgement is spot on. However, I’m afraid I have to add that to my ears the singer had a rather limited emotional range. In Kindertotenlieder I find his performance uninvolving; his interpretation sounds contained. I think Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen suits him rather better; he comes across as more involved and seems to put more into the songs. It’s valuable to have Horenstein’s performances of these cycles available once again – he conducts them perceptively – but I’ve heard many better singers.

The chief attraction, though, is the symphony. I’ve compared the performance with the studio recording from 1970; what about the sound? Well, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that the Unicorn recording offers a much better sonic picture of Horenstein’s interpretation – and of the LSO’s playing. Bob Auger was the engineer and the results he obtained still sound impressive five decades later. The Unicorn sound is clearer and had good depth and, crucially, the internal balance in the orchestra is much better than the BBC engineers achieved in the Royal Festival Hall. So, in every respect, the Unicorn recording offers a more polished experience and, frankly, it belongs in any serious Mahler collection. And yet….. There’s an energy, a sense of purpose and an excitement about this 1961 concert performance that is hard to resist. Andrew Rose has had access to copies of BBC Transcription tapes and he’s done a marvellous job. Of course, the sound has limitations; it’s nearly sixty years old, after all. But there’s nothing in the sound quality that will impede your enjoyment of this compelling performance. Even if you have the Unicorn recording, you should invest in this set also because the two complement each other. For Horenstein devotees it’s a mandatory acquisition.

I’ve heard Jascha Horenstein now in at least one performance of every Mahler symphony except the Second. With every performance that comes my way I become even more convinced that he was one of the handful of truly great Mahler conductors.

John Quinn

Previous review: Stephen Barber

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