MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major – Vienna Symphony Orchestra/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio PASC 542, 57:43 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Having broadcast Jascha Horenstein’s later version – with the London Symphony Orchestra – of Mahler’s 1888 First Symphony (1970) – the sudden appearance on Pristine of Horenstein’s 1953 version for Vox with the Vienna Symphony – came to me as a surprise.  On my program, “The Music Treasury,” I called the 1970 Horenstein performance among the best recorded versions I know. Many collectors, while they admire Horenstein’s credentials in his beloved Mahler, felt that the earlier, Vienna ensemble simply could not meet the scrupulous conductor’s fiery demands, particularly in the last movement. The original Vox sound found detractors, who called the recorded image boxy and over-miked. The lyrical aspects of the work, however, based upon the composer’s own song-cycle Songs of a Wayfarer, do engage us, especially the mood of romantic disappointment in the midst of a high-flown summer, marked by a seven octave A in the strings while woodwinds gurgle and brass proclaim the thrill of life.

Portrait Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr

Gustav Mahler,
by Moritz Nähr

The current liner notes for this reissue do not detail the XR remastering process and the various adjustments Andrew Rose has made to the Vox original. But the new gloss does much to justify annotator Mischa Horenstein’s assessment  of the conductor’s “complete engagement and identification with the Mahler idiom.” Always, Jascha Horenstein brings an innate rhythmic acumen to Mahler that complements his sense of the idiosyncracies of this especial Viennese style. The various pregnant pauses, tugs and relaxations of pulse, give the second and fourth movement an edgy romantic fervor that often assails the heavens even as it plumbs the depths. The fourth movement deliberately brings back the bird calls and sunshine of the first movement, but now cast as part of cosmic melancholy that barely contains the agony of our musical protagonist. The second movement, a muscular peasant dance, has a sinewy drive that finds its rivals in Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, two of the greater exponents of this passionate music. The third movement opens with an eldritch canon on “Frere Jacques” that soon evolves into gaudy café music indulging itself in vulgarity so as to confront, like Jekyll and Hyde, the music’s more spiritual aspirations. The last movement storms the heavens; and if the Vienna Symphony does not quite meet the anguished requirements in note-perfect order, so much “purer” the attempt.  The pandemonium in Heaven finds its counterpart in the deep meditations on our mortal coil that achieve in sincerity what the musicians lack in tonal and technical focus.

I recommend this performance for its canny understanding of the contraries in Mahler’s character, his “mingled measures” of pain, grandiosity, exultation, cheapness, and sentimental extravagance that often equate his music with some “Divine Comedy.” That Horenstein manipulates these epic paradoxes bears testimony to a grand insight coupled with an unerring musical intuition.

—Gary Lemco

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