Top Ear

Horenstein’s Blazing BPO Mahler 5, Now Remastered

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Jeremy Lee writes

For years, connoisseurs and fans of the conductor had to endure the unlistenable tapes of an off-air recording of a 1961 Edinburgh Festival performance of Horenstein conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Fifth, one that bore special historical significance as the Berlin Philharmonic’s earliest extant recording of Mahler 5, as well as a recording to fill in a gaping gap of Horenstein’s Mahler discography (only recently did not one but three tapes of Horenstein’s Mahler 5 resurface–with the LSO and Goteborg SO besides this BPO recording).  Not long ago Pristine Audio, a label run by respected audio restorer Andrew Rose specialising in remastering scratchy historical recordings, got hold of the tapes to this performance and have done a painstaking restoration.  The result is revelatory:  the thick hiss of the original is now almost completely gone, while the constricted dynamic range has been opened greatly.  There’s much more sense of air between the instruments, and the timbral definition and tar-thick bass of the original has now been cleaned up massively (finally you can hear what the double basses are doing!).  Irreversible damage to the original tapes, such as tape warbles and drop-offs, still intrude at times, but what we have here is still nothing less than the best possible transfer of a tattered yet priceless source.  Pristine Audio makes this recording available in MP3 or CD and Mono or Ambient Stereo (the latter is artificially constructed); I got my copy as an Ambient Stereo CD (a CD-R) and in no way does it sound unnatural or fabricated. The presentation is basically like a normal CD and comes with a note on the performance by Horenstein’s cousin Misha and on the remastering by Rose–in other words, a very fine presentation.  So, kudos to the Pristine Audio team for bringing this performance to its best possible light.

And my word, what a performance!  I have not been particularly impressed by any of Horenstein’s Mahler recordings so far, but this Mahler 5 is undoubtedly the exception.  The quality that impressed me first and foremost was its blazing intensity imbued into every single bar.  Virtually every climax in the piece has been milked to give its largest impact, so I can’t begin to list every single one of them, but just take the brass chorale climax of the second movement as an example:  almost saturated with walls of sound, brought to the peak by a huge amount of ritardando applied at the perfect moment, and finally capped with ringing brass and huge percussion.  Not even Tennstedt’s Royal Festival Hall live recording could match this in terms of the sheer amount of tension this performance produces–and that’s saying a lot.

But besides this intensity, there was the soulfulness and organic-ness of the phrasing that brought a touch of humanity and vulnerably to the music that many other conductors, in their striving for all-stops-out excitement or heroism, fail to pay much attention to.  There is the poignant second theme of the second movement, here taken at a slightly slower tempo than usual, and of course the cello soliloquy that strikes me as almost Shostakovichian in its desolation.  There is the string theme that starts at 10:40 into the scherzo, that starts with an achingly long C and accelerandos with an irresistible yet uncannily natural momentum that gathers speed into one wallop of a climax.  And of course there’s the Adagietto, taken at a perfect pace of 9:34, the speed invested neither into the amazingly reflective opening nor the beautifully sustained final climax but the central, highly conflicted episode in F and G flat major that radiates with passionate warmth and piquant urgency yet without unnatural or musically unfounded rushing.  Some say if Furtwangler conducted a Mahler Fifth, it would sound like Horenstein’s:  more accurate words have not been said.

Horenstein as a conductor had a legion of admirers, but he was often criticised for being unyielding and stiff in terms of tempo and differentiation between sections.  Well, you’ll get none of that here; in fact Horenstein’s tempo fluctuations between sections are wide but never wild, and mostly strikes me as absolutely perfect, be it the fantastically wild central Plotzlich Schneller episode in the first movement, (as previously discussed) the second theme of the second movement, the various trios in the third movement, the flexible and singing Adagietto, and of course the brass chorales in the second and final movements, both of which are pulled off exceedingly satisfyingly.

Onto the matter of the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra which at that time had very little experience in playing Mahler (both Furtwangler and Celibidache were not known for their Mahler, the latter going so far as to vow not to conduct Mahler ever, and it would take another 12 years before Karajan started conducting Mahler with the Berliners).  The amount of experience and tradition in playing a composer’s work itself of course does not make a performance less or more worthy by itself, and the lack of it may sometimes be a good thing if an orchestra takes to the work with a fresh sense of discovery.  And that’s exactly what we get here.  Besides, the quality and precision of the playing is astonishing even by today’s standards (and what more, a live performance of an unfamiliar work by the 1960s BPO (if you recall Barbirolli’s Mahler 2 and 3…)).  Given that under lesser hands the BPO’s playing could turn into a disaster, we have to thank Horenstein whose laser-like focus galvanised the orchestra to produce one of its technically most secure performances ever.  Also, during this time the thick gloss and chrome polish of the Karajan touch had still not eaten into the BPO’s flesh entirely, and so the strings of course sound rich and sweet, but the lower brass packs an amazing amount of raw power and so does the percussion section–qualities that were much less pronounced in Karajan’s go at the work.

This is required listening for anyone that claims to know Mahler 5, for both as a performance and as a remastering it is nothing less than a revelation.

Details

  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 5
  • Performers:  Jascha Horenstein (conductor);  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Label:  Pristine Audio PASC 416
  • Sonics:  Ambient stereo/mono ADD
  • Total playing time: 1:15:52
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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