Composer(s): Gustav MAHLER
Conductor: Jascha HORENSTEIN
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Catalog #: UKCD2006/7
Format: CD (2 Discs)
Time: 42:47 / 54:28 min
SPARS Code: ADD
By Tony Duggan from www.musicweb-international.com:
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.