MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat "Symphony of a Thousand"
London Symphony Orch/BBC Chorus/BBC Choral Society/Goldsmith's Choral Union/Hampstead
Choral Society/Emanuel School Boys' Choir/Orpington Junior Singers/Goldsmith's
Choral Union. Soloists: Joyce Barker, Agnes Giebel and Bery ll Hatt, sopranos;
Kerstin Meyer and Helen Watts, contraltos; Kenneth Neate, tenor; Alfred Orda,
baritone; Arnold van Mill, bass; Jascha Horenstein, cond.
IMG BBC 4001 (2 CDS) (F) (ADD) TT: 42:56 & 57:57
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(NOTE: THIS RECORDING WAS REISSUED IN 2013 AS PART OF A SPECIAL BBC
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Here is a release collectors have been anticipating for many years,
Jascha Horenstein's magnificent 1959 performance of Gustav Mahler's
monumental "Symphony of a Thousand" -- in sound that does justice
to the interpretation.
Charles Gerhardt, known to collectors for his countless superb
recordings for RCA and Reader's Digest, told me the story of how this
performance of the Mahler Eighth came to be. Gerhardt was working with
Horenstein on a series of recordings in the late '60s and early 70s.
During a session break, they discussed Mahler, in particular the legendary
1959 BBC performance of the Eighth. Horenstein told him the BBC was
discussing their budget, concerned as they hadn't spent all available
funds. As so often happens with government agencies, if money is unspent
it will be lost, so Horenstein suggested, "You want to use up your budget?
Just let me do the Mahler Eighth!" The massive requirements of the
score -- almost a double orchestra, extra brass in the balcony, huge
choruses and 8 vocal soloists -- would, indeed, use up the budget.
Fortunately the BBC took Horenstein up on his suggestion and the result
was this performance, which took place in Royal Albert Hall March 20, 1959.
The same story in a somewhat modified version is told in the splendid
notes by Bernard Keeffe that accompany this set. According to Keeffe, the
LSO was augmented to 130 players, and the total number of performers was
756. Keeffe also describes details of the difficulties in arranging
rehearsal time and the fact that the actual concert was the first time
all of the participants had performed the work together
The performance was recorded in stereo, one of the first BBC ventures
into two-channel territory. Shortly afterwards, the BBC supplied public
radio stations with transcriptions. A station I worked for at the time
received a copy, but the disks were flawed. Calls to the BBC revealed
that the entire pressing was defective, with a disconcerting low-frequency
hum throughout, which virtually made the performance unlistenable. It
was surprising that the BBC, so well-known for their quality standards,
would let a technical glitch like this happen. There have been several
issues of this performance on pirate LPs/CDs, all mono with poor sound;
the latest incarnation is on Arlecchino in their series, The Art of
Now we have the performance from the best possible source -- the BBC.
Some collectors may remember a few years ago a representative of the
BBC wrote a letter to the Editor of Gramophone saying they still
had the original tapes of the Horenstein Mahler Eighth, had made a digital
copy and eventually it would be released. Well, here it is!
And it is superb! The performance is Olympian, shattering in its
cumulative power. Horenstein is a true advocate of Mahler's music, as
evidenced by his superb studio recordings of the First, Third, Fourth and
Ninth symphonies, and live recordings of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies,
and The Song of the Earth. By its very nature, the Eighth is an
oddity in the symphonic world; no other work except Havergal Brian's
Gothic Symphony, requires as many performers. To some it seems
strange to combine a mediaeval hymn(Veni, Creator Spiritus) with a
setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust, but it works in a
committed performance. There is power and grandeur in this reading of
the mighty Eighth, a constant sense of occasion. The closing chorus, a
setting of the final scene from Goethe's Faust, in which a mystic chorus
reverently proclaims that "the eternal-womanly draws us on," is performed
very slowly, to grandiose effect. All of the soloists are excellent.
Overall they are equal to any other group to be heard in a recording of
this score, live or studio. The augmented London Symphony Orchestra is
at its very best, and the manifold choruses acquit themselves admirably
in this very taxing music. This is surely the performance that sets the
standard by which all others must be judged.
This early stereo recording has a more natural sound than what is heard on
most multi-miked digital recordings made in the three-decades-plus since.
Balances are ideal, from the hushed choruses, the harmonium, the mandolin, the
brilliant shining brass, vocal soloists -- all are in perspective. And,
of course, the "big" moments are hair-raising. The climax of the work,
with its blazing balcony brass, and huge tam-tam cataclysmic smashes, is
stunning. It is obvious the BBC stored the master tapes carefully; there
is no loss of high frequencies.
The original BBC transcriptions included about 17 minutes of applause;
unfortunately this is not included in this 2-CD set, although it easily
could have been accommodated. The sound of about 6,000 people roaring
their approval is a show in itself and quite exciting to hear. Applause
wells up, fades down, only to resume with even more intensity as conductor
and soloists return to the stage. Normally I find the sound of applause
on recordings rather irritating, but in this case, after such a stupendous
performance, one can easily relate to the enthusiasm of the audience. As
the BBC included this on their transcriptions, I am surprised they did not
also include it on the CDs. They did include a 20-minute interview with
Horenstein in conversation with Alan Blyth in which they discuss the
conductor's career, and his views on Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartok,
Janacek, Nielsen, Richard Strauss and Furtwängler.
This is a remarkable document in every way, one of the truly great Mahler
recordings of all time, essential for every serious collector.
R.E.B. (Sept. 1999)