Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Mahler: Symphony No. 3

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MAHLER Symphony No. 3 1. BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 2 Jascha Horenstein, cond; 1 Helen Watts (a); 1 Dennis Egan (posthorn); 1 Denis Wick (tbn); 1 Highgate School Ch; 1 Orpington Junior Singers; 2 Claudio Arrau (pn); 1 London SO & Ch; 2 French Natl RSO ARCHIPEL 557, mono (2 CDs: 145:01) Live: 1 London 11/16/1961; 2 Montreux 9/17/1962

Sometimes you come to appreciate some of the conducting legends of the past when you have first listened to one of the conducting duds of the present, and that was my experience with this Mahler Third. I had just suffered (yes, I believe that is the precise word) through Carla Delfrate butchering the music of French opera composers when I put on this Mahler Third. The difference in musical intelligence, feeling, phrasing, rhythmic lift, and correctly judged tempos was like escaping the River Styx and being elevated to Valhalla.

Yet even without such a quantum leap in conducting quality, one cannot escape the feeling that this Mahler Third was indeed one of the great, even momentous, concerts of the 20th century. Shockingly for such a late date, this was its first professional performance in England, and those familiar with Horenstein’s work will know that the British were extremely lucky to have him for this concert. Just about the only negative thing one can note about this recording is the somewhat dry mono sound—good for a 1961 broadcast (indeed, better than Horenstein’s equally legendary Mahler Eighth) but still restricted in sonics. But heavens, what a performance! I actually think that Horenstein’s performance of the first movement even outstrips that of Georg Solti, which up until now was my all-time favorite reading of it, largely due to the more finely detailed layering of the instrumental texture. Despite the boxiness, you hear everything, and every instrument or instrumental group seems to have something important to add to the overall “story” of the music. Nor was I alone in my reaction: At the end of the movement, the London audience does something highly uncharacteristic for the British at an orchestral concert: they roundly applaud the first movement. It’s quite an achievement, and it seems almost incredible that this is its first-ever commercial release.

Moreover, unlike Solti (and even unlike his Nonesuch studio recording of this Symphony with the same orchestra), Horenstein’s intensity and musical drive never slacken in this performance, not even for a millisecond. Seldom have I heard the second movement played so exquisitely, the strings singing sweetly and the rhythmic underpinning simply astonishing. Many years ago, before I began reviewing, I bought, heard, and was disappointed by James Levine’s Mahler Third recording, and I was only slightly more impressed by a live performance he gave with Jessye Norman as the mezzo soloist in Carnegie Hall. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with it, but this Horenstein performance has everything right about it that Levine simply got wrong. Perhaps too much “devotion,” too much psychoanalyzing Mahler at the time he wrote it, and too little of just digging into the score and translating it into sound? It’s hard to say at the remove of 40 years, but let’s just say that Horenstein has the full measure of this Symphony while Levine only had a fair idea of it.

Now, one should be aware that Horenstein’s view of the score is not always 100 percent what Mahler wrote. He sometimes ignores tempo changes and gives his own spin on the music, but to my ears everything he does in this performance works well. Not to keep beating the same drum, but that first movement is an excellent example. In the studio recording, it went along at an almost dirge-like pace; here, it is utterly dynamic and thrilling. In both the studio and live versions, the posthorn solo is beautifully played by Dennis Egan, and this is one moment in this broadcast where the sonics are good enough to give the listener a fine sense of “space.” Helen Watts’s singing is rich and beautiful, although not quite as expressive in detail as Janet Baker with Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony-CBS) or Ewa Podle? with Antoni Wit (Naxos), my other two favorite Mahler Thirds. The Highgate School Choir is superb, having that sound that one somehow instinctively associates with British children’s choirs. Horenstein’s tempo in the last movement is brisk when compared to other Mahlerians (21:13 compared to Tilson Thomas’s 26:13 or Wit’s 25:31), which some listeners may interpret as a race to the finish on Horenstein’s part, but just listen to the feeling he elicits from the LSO; and, at this clip, the movement lacks its usual “draggy” feeling, as if it were an interminable exercise in bathos. Now, of course, it can and does also work well at the slower tempos that Tilson Thomas and Wit use, but that is the magic of Mahler. His symphonies, unlike almost any others I can think of, can withstand nearly any and every tempo change one can put into them. The only thing they cannot withstand is a boring reading, and boring is not a word one can apply to this performance.

As a bonus (since the entire Third Symphony clocks in at a few seconds under 90 minutes) we age given an equally spectacular reading of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Claudio Arrau as soloist. My readers know that I like but do not really love Arrau as a pianist; everything he played was good and usually had the right style, but many of his performances and recordings are no better than those of several other pianists. Here, however, he truly sounds caught up in the moment, not least due to Horenstein’s exquisite shaping and phrasing of the music. Although I still love Fritz Reiner’s dynamic 1954 account with Rubinstein and Max Fiedler’s old-world and slightly eccentric (but still musical) performance from the early 1930s (with Alfred Hoehn as soloist), there is just something so shapely and well-phrased about Horenstein’s reading of the orchestral part that it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Arrau takes a while to heat up—his entrance is played very well but not with any particular abandon, but then just listen to the way he responds with both remarkable fire and stunning nuance to the equally nuanced playing of the French Radio and TV Orchestra. The best way to describe this performance, overall, is as an alternation of a singing line with ebb and flow against the dramatic outbursts, the latter never dull but also never so explosive that they ruin the line of the music. Oh, there are many of those among our young conductors today who could learn a thing or three from Horenstein about phrasing! True, the strings in the last movement sound a little scrappy, but no matter. The musical treatment and intensity of this performance trumps technical polish.

Archipel provides absolutely no liner notes with this release, not even a sentence or two to tell prospective buyers who Jascha Horenstein was. Even though I know that a recording like this is aimed at the collectors’ market, that very few people will bother with a 53-year-old mono recording of the Mahler Third when they can get digital stereo from Tilson Thomas, Wit, or the late Claudio Abbado (another outstanding version), but I still feel that the label owes it to those few who are under age 30 and buy this release to let them know who Horenstein was and explain his importance. Otherwise, I recommend this set highly.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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