INKPOT#74 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.8. Various/LSO/Horenstein (BBC Legends)
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)
BBC Chorus BBC Choral Society Goldsmith’s Choral Union
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein
Recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 March 1959. Set includes interview with Jascha Horenstein
BBC Music Legends BBCL 4001-7
by Derek Lim
Its now a great time to be a Mahlerian, but only 50 years ago, even in such a culturally healthy place as London, his music was not thought important or necessary. It is said that if a single event had to be pin-pointed as the event which made Mahler’s music so widely popular, from nearly total unawareness, it had to be the “Proms” performance of Mahlers Eighth Symphony conducted by Jascha Horenstein in the Royal Albert Hall on 20 March 1959. That year, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) found themselves with a large excess of funds, and were desperately looking for ways to spend the remainder of their budget. They remembered a little-known Jewish conductor who recorded a remarkable Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen in the 20s, and he was free to conduct at the time of the Proms. They got nearly every choir they could find in England, and together with the orchestra managed to garner 756 performers, with hundreds of children in the chorus. The rest, as they say, is history – History preserved and released finally in this disc set, a performance of the Eighth that is now the touchstone of performance.
This performance has been released before, on an Arlecchino pirate recording, in far worse sound than this. This present transfer is from the BBC master tapes, and was recorded in stereo sound, which though not perfect, manages to capture much of the colour of the original performance, and loses none of the excitement in the process. I would have liked the singers to be balanced just that little bit closer, for example, but that scarcely hinders it at all.
Horenstein’s way with Mahler is at once masterful and non-exaggerated. The opening of the first movement of the Symphony is like a torrent of water passing over rocky terrain, and it must be handled with the utmost control. Horensteins opening is totally free of mannerisms, and though initially slow, quickly picks up momentum. “Imple superna” introduces the soprano I at a flowing tempo. The choirs all sing very well, and are large enough such that there is a sense of a great event, though small enough such that their diction can be heard clearly.
His transitions, mainly are the best part of his work – they are never exagerrated in terms of ritardandi, for example, and more importantly, one gets the feeling of inevitability not found in other conductors. Horenstein is never tempted to make an opera out of the first movement, but he handles the orchestral interludes as they are interludes, not changing the tempi excessively. In this way he preserves a continuity. The singers are occasionally tired and dont sing exactly on pitch. The orchestra is in good shape, and astonishingly, are in complete communion with the Mahler idiom – no one section sticks out, for example, something very important to his music (unlike some conductors who treat Mahler symphonies like concerti for orchestra)
In “Infirma” Horenstein (right) shows his natural command of line, and ebb and flow of singing is very charming. The great “Accende lumen sensibus” theme is worked up to, and then carried off amazingly – imagine more than 700 players coming simultaneously on the note, and the effect is truly astonishing. Here the somewhat distant recording of the orchestra causes some of the turbulent lines on the bass to be a little lost, but the effect is still quite overwhelming.
In the ensuing contrupuntal section, Horenstein manages to keep a line going, while bringing out the counterpoint, though some of the detail is lost to the recording quality. In the return of “Accende”, there is a sense of inevitability. After that, he manages to build up the tension in the fugue, to the return of “Veni Creator Spiritus”, which is truly thrilling, and what is more, it is inevitable. But he doesn’t slow the tempo down, so that the return of the theme in minor right after is very masterful. His buildup again of the portion just before the double-fugue, before “Gloria patri domino” is equally thrilling, though with its fair share of wrong notes. Again, here, he doesn.t slam the brakes here, as so many other conductors do. The only time he does take a ritardando is before the eventual coda, and that reinforces the idea of a grand occasion. The coda itself is majestic, yet unbridled, and it is built-up so well to that it seems totally inevitable. Truly Horenstein.s forte is making each and every gesture fit into its architecture, such that it is one organic whole.
After the magnificent first movement I scarcely wanted to move onto the second – I was so satisfied. (By the way, on the first pirate release after the first movement there was applause; this has been deleted on this release)
Horenstein starts the next movement a little faster than conductors now would take it – in fact, a little closer to Adagio ma non troppo than poco adagio (the direction on the score). This by no means reduces the impact of this section, which is lyrically shaped. The main singers are all satisfactory in this movement, though the strain of having sung through the really taxing first movement is showing. The most important passages are done admirably, though in all truth I have not found a tenor who does total justice to the very taxing part of Doctor Marianus. (There is a very rare, and unreleased recording of Fritz Wunderlich singing the part, which I would dearly love to get.) With the exception of mispitching sometimes, the group is largely sound. What is more remarkable, for me, is Horensteins ability to pace and shape the movement – like a river running its course. His transition sections are never crudely or amateurishly handled, or whipped up – this is true knowledge of the score at work! Also, he never sentimentalizes passages, like the part where Mater gloriosa comes into view, and never takes such drastically slow tempi that the sense of line and momentum is lost.
Left: “The Joy of the Blessed” by Salvador Dali, from illustrations for Dante’s Paradiso.
For all his exceptional work in the first movement, and the rest of the second movement, the finale, starting with the passage “Alles Vergngliche” takes the cake, and very much the rest of the bakery with it. I dare you to find this passage more masterfully done, from triple-piano to the final, blazing fortissimo. But that long crescendo isn’t the best thing. Listen to the way he brings the torrents of the river into its the final resting spot, in the orchestral coda, where the music glitters with the most exceptional kind of love. Very few passages have touched me in this way – after the Immolation Scene from Gtterdmmerung, the final pizzicato portion of the Larghetto from Beethovens Violin Concerto, this. In Horensteins performance one really feels that “… the Universe bursts into song. We hear no longer human voices, but those of planets and suns which revolve.” (Mahler)
I was totally drained, yet refreshed after listening to a performance of such intensity. The applause apparently lasted for a very long time indeed, and shouts of Bravo can be heard right after it ends. To all Horenstein fans, the disc includes an interview with Alan Blyth, where he talks about his early career, and his encounters withBerg, Strauss, Webern, Schoenberg and many other famous musical personalities. Toanyone vaguely interested in Mahler at all, who hates the Eighth or loves the Eighth, this CD-set is a must. I recommend it with no caveats, and with highest urgency.
In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from HMV (The Heeren), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Sing Discs (Raffles City).
Derek Lim would die to play or sing in the Eighth.
448: 5.4.1999 Derek Lim