Jascha Horenstein Conducts Beethoven's Ninth (1963/2010)

by | Aug 24, 2010 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Jascha Horenstein Conducts Beethoven’s Ninth (1963/2010)

Program: BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor “Choral”
Performers: Pilar Lorengar, soprano/Marga Hoeffgen, alto/Josef Traxel, tenor/Otto Wiener, bass/RTF Choir/French National Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Studio: Doremi DVD DHR-7960,  [Distr. by Allegro] 

Video: 4:3 Black & White

Audio: PCM Mono

Length: 70:10
Rating: ***** 

Only two video records exist of Jascha Horenstein (1898-1973), the first – based on a 1970 documentary from the BBC – attests to Horenstein’s prowess in the music of Carl Nielsen, while this complete Ninth Symphony (31 October 1963) from Paris demonstrates how romantically volatile a personality in music Horenstein could be, alternating a subjectively slow tempo in the opening movement with radiating intensity–just watch the tip of his baton in the coda!  Occasionally, Horenstein–obviously suffering from the heat of the TV camera lights–places his fingers to the bridge of his nose or touches his eyes, a concession to mortality and human frailty in the midst of such overpowering, superhuman musical forces. For those who first knew Horenstein from his Vox recording of the Ninth Symphony (1956), the conception will seem familiar, although the slow movement lingers in broader spectra, the colors transparent, the lines taut but singing in each choir.

After a driven first movement–in which the tympani looms above on a riser directly center of the conductor–Horenstein opens the Scherzo with convulsive fervor, directing the minor rhythmical adjustments while conveying the ineluctable momentum of the whole. His left hand droops and rises at each assault of the tympani. The trio refuses to relax the tempo, and the counter-theme in the woodwinds works up a lather whose arch culminates in the French horns, oboe, and vividly pulsating strings. The da capo appears refreshed and equally illuminated by Horenstein’s feral devotion to details of pulsation and interior rhythm. Horenstein’s baton suddenly loosens its adamantine grip and becomes a melodic instrument just before the last statement of the trio theme and the abrupt coda.

The four soloists enter prior to the Adagio, in which, with his eyes closed a la Karajan, Horenstein has clearly been transported to a transcendent realm. Despite the consistently vague and bleached visuals–though the close-ups on Horenstein warrant the price of admission–the clarinet and French horn shine, and the string line drips with metaphysical sympathy, the flutes already indicating the empyrean universe in which this music dwells. Everything that rises must converge, and so the epic lines of this double-theme and variations achieves a resonant tension that finally has its release in the brass fanfare that explodes and then dissipates into a sea of tranquility.

The unaccredited French cameramen take the long view–note the sideways angle for the six double basses–for the opening of the Presto: Allegro assai vivace last movement, which Horenstein rather urges along in its brief recap of the previous movements’ motifs. Index finger to his lips, Horenstein invites the low strings to intone the main melody of this universal movement. The ensuing crescendo gains flexibility and elasticity as it swells to a pageant’s proportions, Horenstein’s gestures almost wild with passion. Otto Wiener (1911-2000), the veteran from the 1956 Vox recording, addresses us in German, and with the entry of the chorus, we can well appreciate Horenstein’s long history as a vocal conductor. Pilar Lorengar (1928-1996) soars, her distinctive vibrato and piercing head tone already cutting the aether like a fluent scalpel of sound. Josef Traxel (1916-1975) intones the Scherzo, its janissary figures light and frothy and leading directly to the vivacious if martial fugato. At “Seid umschlungen, millionen” the concentrated adagio opens up a world of poignant harmony, the male voices risoluto, the female voices espessivo and dolce. In the vocal quartet, “Freude Toechter aus Elysium,” the grainy tones of Marga Hoeffel (1921-1995) play against the trio, and she and Wiener ground the aspirations for universal brotherhood in a human-all-too-human context. The coda has Horenstein cutting loose with a merciless tempo, the piccolo above flaunting its ability to rise to the assault along with a jubilant–if exhausted–tutti. The old tiger still had claws!

–Gary Lemco

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