MIHALOVICI: Sinfonia Partita for String Orchestra, Op. 66; STRAVINSKY: Symphony in Three Movements; BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra – Orchestre National de France/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio PASC 535, 71:59 [pristineclassical.com] ****:

To a large extent, the accompanying notes for this album, by Misha Horenstein, well serve and likely trump any remarks I could add.  Those who know the name of neo-classical composer Marcel Mihalovici (1898-1985) recall that he married pianist Monique Haas, who often performed with Hans Rosbaud and Ferenc Fricsay. Mihalovici embraced a variety of contemporary styles, with a harmonic language ranging from chromaticism to serialism. Romanian folk music influenced his unconventional use of rhythmic variation and instrumental color.  Hans Rosbaud in fact led the first performance of the 1952 Sinfonia Partita for String Orchestra, Op. 66, sometimes designated as the composer’s Symphony No. 2. Jascha Horenstein here presents the French debut (4 May 1953) in Paris, a world-premiere reading that captures the muscular and learned character of the music, which does exploit a fugue in the course of its intensely compact nine minutes.

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky, by Pablo Picasso

Igor Stravinsky,
by Pablo Picasso

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements has a cluttered history that embraces his travels through Nazi-occupied Germany in 1938-1939, the movie version of The Song of Bernadette (1942), and the commission to celebrate the Allied victory in Europe in 1945. This music entered Horenstein’s repertory in 1956, and he made a mission of leading numerous performances of its jarring, biting, and occasionally lyric impulses. The reading given here (19 December 1961) greets us in the Overture: Allegro with a demonic ferocity, with a tangy affinity for the askew, jazz-like and “rhumba” rhythms of the first movement, whose metric agogics remind us often of Le Sacre du Printemps. The piano part remains percussive and driven, as do the incisive tones of the horns and bassoons. If there emerges a “Germanic” sensibility in this music, it refers to the arrogance and pride of their militarism at the time. Clarity of musical line defines Horenstein’s reading, but such instrumental definition by no means detracts from the emotional vigor of the moment, The Andante: Interlude had been conceived for the Franz Werfel film adaptation as “The Apparition of the Virgin,” who announces herself to Jennifer Jones as “the Immaculate Conception.” The harp replaces the piano, surrounded by flutes, creating a perfumed chorale. But none of Stravinsky’s score appeared in the film version. The last movement, Con moto, opens meditatively, then proceeds into a ghoulish march followed by a fugue for piano and harp. Stravinsky quipped that the music captures “the overturned arrogance of the Germans.” To add to the effect of punished, political hubris, Stravinsky scored the final (D-flat sixth) chord when he heard of the A-bomb’s dropping on Hiroshima!

Portrait of Bela Bartok, 1927

Bartók Béla, 1927

Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra owes its etiology to a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, who, though he never made a commercial recording, has had his performance captured on disc. Horenstein knew of Bartok’s music as far back as 1927, when Horenstein and Furtwaengler prepared the German premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 1. The present rendition of the Concerto for Orchestra (19 December 1961, the second half of the Stravinsky concert), aims at the anguished, often stringent lines in the work, what commentator Mischa Horenstein calls its “Expressionist sonority.” Bartok himself noted that the progression of the work traverses energies from the “sternness of the first movement to a lugubrious death-song in the third to a life-assertion of the last one.” Horenstein well articulates the sardonic “play of the pairs” of instruments in the second movement, which, like the parodic fourth—with its swipe at the popularity of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony—provides an intermezzo.  The lovely trio of the second movement allows us to hear a distinctive, liquid brass chorale.  Horenstein performs the elongated version of the final movement Finale: Presto.  Here, the madness of the times invades us with whirling figures, brass fanfares, and a tragic sense that the human heart has not yet purged itself of its self-destructive poisons.

—Gary Lemco