Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On Jascha Horenstein's Mahler 8th

Horenstein is one of those conductors that has cult status in some circles and very little currency in others. Some, like David Hurwitz, loath him and his devotees. Others find his Mahler to be consistently perfect. I have his famous London 3rd on LP and the BBC Legends release of his 1959 Royal Albert Hall performance of the 8th. It is on the latter that I shall concentrate here.

Mahler's 8th is a massive work. It didn't pick up the "Barnum and Bailey" epithet of the "Sinfonie der Tausend" because it is an intimate chamber work. Of all Mahler's works, including large scale ones like the 2nd and 3rd, the 8th has the most Wagnerian scope - both in the forces required and the themes covered. It is also, for that reason, the most difficult to construct. It's one of Mahler's more popular works, and it is one that can really test the mettle of any conductor. On that account, it is my litmus test for any Mahlerian. More than the 3rd, Das Lied von der Erde, or even the 9th.

In 1959, Gustav Mahler wasn't nearly as well known as he is today. However, there were a few conductors and players left who either worked with him or remembered his work. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were the two closest associates alive on 20th March, 1959. Jascha Horenstein was far better-acquainted with the composers of the Second Viennese School - like Alban Berg and Anton Webern - than Mahler (who, as Horenstein related in the interview with Alan Blyth, died before he got to Vienna - which wouldn't have mattered, for obvious reasons). However, he was picked to conduct a performance of Mahler's 8th in the Royal Albert Hall to soak up some budgetary overrun in the BBC's programming department.

This is a justifiably famous performance, credited with sparking the Mahler revival in Britain, and it has circulated in various forms since its recording. The BBC disc, made from the stereo (!) master tapes, sounds better than any previous release. It might be mistaken for a performance made today - if it weren't a little dim in the quiet parts and weirdly-balanced. As to the performance: it is a driven, fiery performance. Horenstein picks his tempo, a rather quick one, and moves the music along relative to that. The, for example, "Accende lumen sensibus" in the first part (Veni, creator spiritus) is thrilling indeed. His second part (Faust) has the requisite amount of mystery and drama - and Horenstein's quick tempo.

I suppose the question is this: does the recording match the hype? Sure, why not? Compared to Solti, Bertini, Nagano, and Wit? No. Not really. Horenstein's performance is notable for being an early document in a new performance tradition (like Barbirolli's 1965 Berlin 2nd), but there have been other conductors who have managed to do better in the score. If you need a super-dramatic Mahler 8th, either Solti or Bernstein will do. I rather prefer Kent Nagano's HM record or Antoni Wit's new (flavor of the month, by the by) set on Naxos. Listen to Horenstein, appreciate his interpretation, and think about what he did. Then put on the Solti disc for some real fireworks.


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