Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Jascha Horenstein, Stockholm Symphony Orchestra

Composer(s): Gustav MAHLER
Conductor: Jascha HORENSTEIN
Orchestra/Ensemble: Stockholm Symphony Orchestra
Label: Unicorn-Kanchana
Catalog #: UKCD2024/25
Format: CD (2 Discs)
Time: 86:39 min
(Recorded during live performances given in the Stockholm Concert Hall on April 15th and 17th, 1966)

By Tony Duggan from
(The texts below was extracted from his review of Horenstein's BBC Legends recording of the same symphony (BBCL 4191-2 2))
Horenstein also recorded the First and Third Symphonies of Mahler in the studio for Unicorn in 1969 and 1970 (UKCD2012 and UKCD2006/7). After his death the company also found a stereo recording of the Sixth Symphony at Swedish Radio with the Stockholm Philharmonic from 1966 (UKCD 2024/5, a concert on the same night that Bernstein conducted the Eighth in London with the Horenstein-trained LSO) and it later appeared on the Music and Arts label too (CDC 785). This Stockholm performance had much to recommend it but there was always, for me, the feeling of "stopgap" about it. It revealed enough to show that Horenstein saw the work as a strictly organized, classically rigorous drama that stressed its twentieth century foundations with a bleak, dogged, unforgiving outlook. The problem was the orchestra‘s playing. Whilst I think it is the case that the Stockholm Philharmonic gave their best for Horenstein, their best was just not good enough for his interpretation’s particular tenor. There is a corporate lack of concentration over the whole performance that renders Horenstein’s uncompromising vision of the work into mild anaemia and so causes what is a noble failure. To give what Horenstein clearly demands, as is borne out by the Bournemouth performance under review now, an unbending concentration across the whole immense work is needed and the Swedish orchestra is just not quite up to that. There were later plans for Horenstein to record the work in the studio in London with the LSO in 1973 but his death put paid to that...

By L. Johan Modée (
"Recommended despite some flaws"
Some critics hold the Stockholm live Mahler sixth to be Horenstein's weakest Mahler interpretation. The playing of the Stockholm PO is not without flaws, and the whole orchestra has been blamed for being slack.

But, as is the case with Barbirolli's Hallé Mahler recordings, even if the orchestra isn't first-rate, the interpretation - in my view - surely is. I am not a stubborn fan of Horenstein, but my first impression of this recording was a nice surprise. Actually I think it is far better than Horenstein's somewhat overrated account of the third.

In my view, then, Horenstein's conception of how to perform this symphony is second to none. And the weak playing... Well: there are differences between flaws and flaws, especially in the case of the brass department. Sometimes flaws are not real catastrophes but rather like spices, adding to the "sense of occasion" due to committed playing. A dull interpretation with stylish, perfect playing can be boring, but a committed and concentrated performance never is - with or without playing flaws. (The same holds for Horenstein's live performance of the ninth, which has more serious flaws than here.)

Moreover, in many parts of this performance we do get lovely playing from the Stockholm PO. Trombones are often excellent, with a perfect bite. String playing in the andante is overall very good. And the hammerblows in the finale are excellent. Add then that Horenstein's interpretation is intense and interesting, a well-behaving audience, and a pretty good recording quality, and we have to reject the common view that this disc is not worth serious consideration. Therefore I think it deserves at least four stars.

Now BBC Legends has released another live Horenstein Mahler sixth, with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1969. It is basically the same interpretation as in the Stockholm performance. Granted, it's better played, but the recording is in mono - a good one, though.

In my view, however, the Stockholm performance is still of great interest, partly because of better sound.


By A. Ruda (
"one of the finest recordings of this symphony ever made"
I first bought this recording as a college student at Univ of Mi in 1980.
It was an LP on the since-gone Nonesuch label. I own two of these LPs and consider them collector items. They were taken from acetate discs and still sound pretty good today on a decent turntable with a good cartridge.
The symphony is available on CD today on the Music and Arts Label out of Berkeley CA and it is combined with the Bruckner 8th. Jump on these if you can find them because they are reasonably priced and sound fine. True, this is not a polished orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic but the production is very musical and Horenstein's interpretation is outstanding. I will put this recording of the Mahler 6th up against anyones out there today - Abbado, Bernstein, Kubelik - you name it. It can go toe to toe with anything out there and deserves to be counted among the top handful of Mahler Sixth recordings. Horenstein's tempo is neither rushed (like the Solti version) nor too slow or plodding. He gets some wonderful phrasing out of the orchestra . I find that I always come back to this recording. If you like Mahler, this symphony under Horenstein's baton needs to be in your collection.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3 - Jascha Horenstein, London Symphony Orchestra

Composer(s): Gustav MAHLER
Conductor: Jascha HORENSTEIN
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Label: Unicorn-Kanchana
Catalog #: UKCD2006/7
Format: CD (2 Discs)
Time: 42:47 / 54:28 min

By Tony Duggan from
One of the work’s greatest interpreters was Jascha Horenstein whose Unicorn recording of 1970 is, for the moment, still available (UKCD2006/7 and also in a boxed set of symphonies by various conductors on Brilliant 99549). The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra is remarkable for character, unfailing alertness and ability to reflect every aspect of Horenstein’s view of the work. The result of a number of "live" performances. The introductory section of the first movement is gutsy and elemental, not at all a comfortable start. Just the kind of impression Mahler must have had in mind when he pointed Walter’s attention to the mountainous landscapes. Notice how the first trombone solo, heavy with funeral dread, conveys a sense of expectancy. Notice too how Horenstein can vary his approach straight after to take in delicacy. It’s Horenstein’s total grasp of every aspect of the first movement and his matchless sense of structure that welds the movement into an expressive whole and rivets the attention throughout. It also allows him to mark a real spiritual aspect in the episode of the march in the way it approaches from a distance before bursting on us and coming to a climax that is, like the opening, raw and rugged. I’ve always believed Horenstein was aware there is a lot more than mere programme music here. Notice how order and chaos seem genuinely pitched against each other in the central section where the marches meet. In this we can witness an aspect Arnold Schoenberg drew attention to. That this movement (and the symphony as a whole) is a struggle between good and evil. Horenstein certainly conveys struggle here to a greater extent than many conductors do. The close of the movement sees the performance emerge on the side of the angels but not before Horenstein delivers the most breathtaking account of the closing pages themselves. At Fig. 74, where harp glissandi introduce an explosion of brass, Horenstein grades the brass dynamics from fortissimo, through piano and then up to triple forte, with the latter absolutely shattering. No other conductor on record quite matches this moment. The crashing and pounding percussion that follows are really abandoned also. Magnificent.

The second movement is, as with Barbirolli and as we will find with Leonard Bernstein, the perfect Prelude to Part II and distinguished again by the playing of the LSO’s woodwinds. Horenstein also notes the darker sides of the movement, realising these are not just pretty blooms in the meadow being depicted, but weeds too. In the third movement there’s a hazy, nostalgic feel in evidence, but when muscularity is called for, as with the first movement, Horenstein is not found wanting. The posthorn solo is played on a flügelhorn making this one of the most distinctive accounts before us. Notice also how Horenstein pays attention to the phrasing of the woodwind around the solo. The great "way point" of this movement, the rearing up of raw nature prior to the gallop for home, finds Horenstein and his players really on their toes. The "Oh Mensch" fourth movement is dark and atmospheric but detailed also. This is a perfect tempo for this movement and so Norma Proctor is given all the space she needs to make every word clear. Clarity is also the keynote in the fifth movement where the boys are a joy – sharp and cheeky in the way they burst in on the silence. Though intensely beautiful in parts, Horenstein doesn’t neglect the drama and tension implicit in the sixth movement and doesn’t stand in the way of the great beauty and sense of contemplation. This great Brucknerian also brings out the qualities the movement seems to inherit from that composer in the music’s sense of slumberous growth. The end emerges naturally with the final timpani notes very prominent, a feature of this recording, which leads me to say the sound balance is not ideal. It favours the winds with the lower strings especially further back in the picture than they should be. But this is the only cloud on the horizon of this classic recording. In lesser hands this symphony can sag in parts. Never once under Horenstein is there any sense of that. His concentration is stunning and every bar seems to have something to say. This remains one of the greatest recordings of any Mahler symphony ever set down and I think it always will.

Over the years my high regard in this survey for these two recordings by Barbirolli and Horenstein have generated more critical comment than any of my choices across the whole synoptic survey both in private e-mails and in public internet forums. True, there are more who will go along with my estimation of the Horenstein recording, but even I have to admit I plough quite a lonely furrow where the Barbirolli recording is concerned. So it goes. I will carry on singing the praises of both these recordings in the general profile. I can do no other but write what I feel and hope those interested will listen with open ears. As I say in my Preface, this survey is a personal selection.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Jascha Horenstein, London Symphony Orchestra

Composer(s): Gustav MAHLER
Conductor: Jascha HORENSTEIN
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Label: Unicorn-Kanchana
Catalog #: UKCD2012
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 56:51 min

By Tony Duggan from
Like Kubelik, Jascha Horenstein first made a recording of this work in Vienna in the mid-1950s and this is still available on Vox coupled with a Bruckner Ninth of the same vintage (CDX2 5508 purchase) and on Preiser (90669 purchase). Horenstein didn't have the benefit of the Vienna Philharmonic and though the Vienna Symphony play well and idiomatically it's their contribution which lets him down, especially in the last movement where Horenstein's demands stretch them too far.

The recording is also boxy and close-miked. Fortunately, Horenstein recorded the work again, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 for Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD2012) and this version supersedes his earlier one in almost every respect. The introduction is as clear and expectant, as with Kubelik, but there is a greater sense of space both in the pacing of the music, the playing of the orchestra and the more atmospheric recording. Horenstein shares also Kubelik's simplicity in the main theme but I like the way he builds in more mystery to the arrival of the soft horn announcement of, what will become, the clinching motive at the climax of the exposition. This is real concert hall "theatre" worthy of a Furtwangler. At the rip-roaring climax note too Horenstein's acute ear for the particular sound of the Mahler orchestra, for contrasts and for the special instrumentation. A slight slowing for dramatic effect is a surprise but such is Horenstein's long-term planning it doesn't obtrude. The Scherzo has more bucolic a swing to the dance and a nice trenchancy which contrasts beautifully with some perky clarinet contributions in the Trio. In the third movement funeral march Horenstein keeps up a slightly faster tempo than usual but, as so often with this conductor, his tempo choice is unerringly the right one for what he wants to say. He recognises, as does Kubelik, that this is a parody and should have the mood of fantasy too. His band interjections really seem to touch a nerve and in the quotation from the Gesellen song that forms the emotional core note the bassoon contribution, the kind of detail highlighting Horenstein was renowned for as it undermines the texture like a worm in the flower bed - very Mahlerian ! When the march returns Horenstein doesn't force the "oom-pah" rhythms of the band but they make their effect which, it is surprising to report, is not as usual as you might think. The benefits of the virtuoso LSO of that period are apparent in the opening onslaught of the fourth movement: "The cry of a deeply wounded heart". Nothing seems beyond this orchestra and their contribution lifts the passage to an almost cosmic level, accentuating the bravado of the young Mahler. Horenstein refuses to wear his heart on his sleeve in the lovely transition into the lyrical second subject, so the great theme emerges from out of exhaustion as a consolation, heart-easing rather than heart-wrenching. In the central section where the battle is resumed and the end signalled Horenstein, ever master of structure, holds something back for the coda and then with what potent nostalgia he paints the final look-back to the start of the symphony: horns calling from immense distances and also note the picking out of a violin harmonic. The end does not disappoint. In fact Horenstein even has a surprise in store. At the point in the score marked "Pesante-triumphal", where the horns should be standing up, Horenstein slows the tempo down in the kind of rhetorical gesture he was not usually known for. The effect is to lift the music again to another level and make no apologies for what always teeters on the edge of banality. In so doing he wins us over with his sheer audacity. This is a very special recording of the First Symphony that ought to be in every collection.

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Johann de Meij: T-Bone Concerto, Symphony No. 1 "The Lord of the Rings"

Composer(s): Johann de MEIJ
Conductor: Heinz FRIESEN
Orchestra/Ensemble: Symphonic Wind Orchestra St. Michael of Thorn
Label: World Wind Music
Catalog #: 500.034 WWM
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 66:49 min

By Adrian TAN from

I am always on the search for compositions and recordings of wind band music of exceptional calibre to convince skeptics that the medium of the wind band is certainly not inferior to the orchestra's. The wind band is still a young form but it has developed in the past few decades with the efforts of great musicians such as Percy Grainger, Gustav Holst and Vincent Persichetti.

Johan De Meij This symphony by the Dutch composer Johan De Meij (b.1953) is yet another milestone for the wind band repertoire. As performed here by the Symphonic Wind Orchestra of St. Thorn in a live concert, the levels of musicality and virtuosity reached undeniably places the ensemble in the league of world-class music-makers.

The Symphonic Wind Orchestra of St. Michael of Thorn is a Dutch ensemble founded in 1863 and boasts of an unparalleled achievement of winning three times in the most prestigous musical event for wind bands - the World Music Contest held in Kerkrade (The Netherlands) once every four years. The ensemble's repetoire ranges from classical transcriptions of Mahler, Respighi, R. Strauss, Orff and Varèse, to music of renowned wind band composers like Hardy Martens and Alfred Reed. Under the leadership of renowned wind band expert Heinz Friesen, we expect nothing less than the best from this potent collaboration.

Christian Lindberg - the Demigod of Trombones The T-bone Concerto is Johan De Meij's latest contribution to the wind band repertoire and features here the internationally acclaimed Christian Lindberg (left). Within expectations, it is an excellent concerto but with the too characteristic De Meij touch observable by listeners familiar with his work.

For example, in his Second Symphony "The Big Apple", De Meij uses minamalist ideas, most obviously in the rhythmic syncopations in the first movement. In the T-bone, he begins with a simple rhythm, which through sub-division of the notes develops in complexity. It rushes to a climax and is really quite exhilarating! Then there is his very tasteful use of the brass, relying on great harmonics to create a majestic sound rather than demanding a the usual forceful, blaring, brassy tone that is quite prevalant in say a Rossini Overture.

According to the notes, the three movements are after how a T-bone steak is prepared! "Rare", "Medium" and "Well-Done"! How relevant that is the notes don't say (and I do not know), but there is that element of increasing difficulty for the soloist. The first movement is a "warm-up" compared to the all-out finale! De Meij uses his own experience as a trombonist to construct the piece, demonstrating the trombone's ability to sing sonorously and the technical virtuosity required of the soloist. I love my steaks medium rare and I totally adore the sublime second movement!

De Meij also creatively uses the accompanying wind band as he scores the first two movements in a neo-baroque style and the third like a chamber ensemble with harpsichord. The finale of this concerto must be one of the most triumphant musical moments ever written for wind bands. The Wind Orchestra of St. Michael of Thorn under the leadership of Heinz Friesen provides a perfect accompaniment for Mr. Lindberg to effortlessly sing the daunting high notes and tackle the technically challenging runs on the slide trombone. His musicality and technical proficiency tells us beyond a shadow of a doubt why he is such a successful (perhaps the only truly successful) trombone virtuoso.

'Gandalf' - Detail from a painting after Tolkien. By John Howe. The Lord of the Rings won the Sudler International Wind Band Composition competition in 1989 and is one of most popular works for wind bands all over the world. It is a programmatic work based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy of novels of the same name. While I'm tempted to elaborate on the ingenious musical interpretation of the characters and the tale, I must restrain myself to a brief intro to whet the appetite.

The first movement is a musical potrait of the wise and noble Gandalf (right), the wizard who takes us on a ride on his beautiful grey horse, Shadowfax. The second movement, Lothlórien (The Elvenwood), is an impression of the beautiful and lush Elvenwood and also paints the picture of the hobbit Frodo with the lady Galadriel. Detail from 'Swan' - a painting after Tolkien by Ted Nasmith The ominous ending signifies the last of Frodo's three visions: the great Eye, a foreboding omen. The Gollum (Sméagol, represented on the soprano saxophone) whose cherished treasure, the Ring, was stolen from him is malicious and yet pitiful. It continually searches and laments for his lost treasure.

The fourth movement, Journey in the Dark: "The Mines of Moria" - "The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm", describes the Fellowship of the Ring's laborous journey to seek the destruction of the Ring. Gandalf is engaged in battle with the horrible Balrog, which defeated, crashes from the bridge of Khazad-Dûm into a fathomless abyss.

The last movement is a folk dance which expresses the carefree and optimistic Hobbits. The ending of the Symphony is not exuberant though, as it captures the final image of the trilogy where Gandalf and Frodo sail away in a white ship, slowly disappearing into the horizon.

Most impressive are the sounds of the symphonic brass of the wind orchestra as they produce a magnificent tone while not being overly brassy and handle the many difficult passages with great ease. The soprano saxophone solo is both wicked and sad. Even more impressive is how De Meij's ambitious creative 'Valinor' - Painting after Tolkien by Ted Nasmithefforts seem justified by the superb "feel" of the musicians, thus allowing this programmatic work to achieve its ultimate effect in the musical re-telling of Tolkien's epic.

Johan De Meij's talent is clearly evident and in producing a work like this for his first symphony. The future is very bright for him, as well as - fortunately - the repertoire of the wind band.

After writing such a glowing review for a piece of music and its performance, I can only hope it might motivate a few to listen to it. There is much more in the music of wind bands that we might hope to explore. And for those who might join this space.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bruckner - Symphony No. 4 - Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Composer(s): Anton BRUCKNER
Conductor: Claudio ABBADO
Orchestra/Ensemble: Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Label: Lucerne Festival
Catalog #: 7 640125 120455
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 64:15 min

In recent years, it's been Claudio Abbado's Mahler that has attracted all the attention, but he has always been an outstanding Bruckner interpreter, too. Though he has never conducted a cycle of the symphonies, he has made Bruckner recordings sporadically through his career. This is his second version of the Fourth; the first, with the Vienna Philharmonic, appeared in 1991. But, like so many of Abbado's performances in the past five years, the radiance and transparency of this account, recorded in the Suntory Hall in Tokyo during their residency there back in 2006, lifts it on to another plane altogether. Part of that is undoubtedly down to the orchestra. No one who heard the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's debut at the Proms in 2007 could doubt the quality of the ensemble Abbado has created from the cream of Europe's instrumentalists, or fail to marvel at the freedom he allows them within his over-arching musical ideas. It produces extraordinary results in this Bruckner symphony - perfectly paced, with every climax seeming utterly natural and unforced, and every texture as limpid as possible.