LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Symphony No. 9; Kindertotenlieder
PERFORMER: Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano); LSO, Scottish National Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4075-2 ADD
Horenstein must have had nerves of steel to conduct a Ninth which faces Mahler’s uncomfortable truths as unflinchingly as this. After a searing first movement where the horrors of the several abysses are etched almost more powerfully than the great optimistic peaks, his inner movements bring little comfort in their heavy emphases and frequent pauses to peer into the void. The country monsters of the scherzo and the grim academics of the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ totter as they go about their grim rituals, but hang on tenaciously; the sudden humanity of the third movement trumpet theme has never come as more welcome balm.
It would all be too much were the playing of the LSO at the 1966 Proms not so assured, providing an exception to the general rule that the execution of Mahler symphonies has improved immeasurably over the past few decades. Horenstein, who conducted a performance of the Ninth with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1932 (was Shostakovich there in the audience?) and left four recorded documents of his interpretation, surely never had a better orchestra at his fingertips, and certainly there has never been finer playing from the first horn (Barry Tuckwell, I presume). The sound is good enough to reflect the sheen and the impressive balances of Horenstein’s reading, though, inevitably, coughers wreck the total concentration of Mahler’s final whispered strings. Coarser is the Edinburgh Kindertotenlieder, which catches Janet Baker’s hallowed greatness at too close quarters; her studio performance with Barbirolli remains the essential benchmark. Horenstein’s dogged intensity would perhaps be less welcome in the more external theatricals of the Resurrection; Kubelík’s fast-moving, instantly adaptable style illuminates by lightning flash, as clear-cut as the recorded division of his first violins left and seconds to the right. David Nice