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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Carl Nielsen, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein ‎– Symphony No. 5

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This week’s Tuesday Blog, an edition of our continuing Vinyl’s Revenge series, considers the beaten path through Nielsen’s symphonies (engaged in this series a few weeks ago with the Inextinguishable). Today’s choice is its companion Fifth symphony – companion insofar as it is common on CDs to offer these two symphonies together as a “package deal”…

This week’s conductor is an interesting character. In a New York Times article I stumbled onto in researching this disc , Alex Ross writes about Jacha Horenstein that he is “ a conductor of marginal renown who has generated tremendous cult interest in the [years] since his death. He lacked the long-term association with a big-name orchestra and record label that has elevated lesser musicians. But in the last few years his studio and live performances, with orchestras superior and inferior, in sound good and terrible [provides] an adequate record of one of the most vital, idiosyncratic interpreters of the 20th century.”

Horenstein was born of Jewish parents in Kiev in 1898 and moved to Vienna with his family while in his teens. He studied violin with Adolf Busch, theory with Joseph Marx and composition with Franz Schreker in Berlin. He made his conducting debut in 1923 with the encouragement of Wilhelm Furtwangler, whom he idolized. His ascent was swift: engagements with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra from 1925 to 1928, the Dusseldorf Opera from 1929 to 1933. In 1933 Horenstein fled Nazi Germany for Paris, and his career fell into a disarray from which it never quite recovered. For more than a decade, he wandered from orchestra to orchestra, country to country, visiting the Soviet Union, Palestine, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and Mexico. In the early 40's he tried to establish himself in the United States, conducting several concerts with the New York Philharmonic, but made little headway. Big-name orchestras did not warm to his painstaking interpretive demands and often failed to invite him back.

Among other things, Horenstein was the greatest Mahler conductor of his generation, perhaps of any generation. Performances of Mahler, and of Bruckner, have grown increasingly monumental and monotone in recent years; it is deeply satisfying to go back to Horenstein's flexible, full-voiced, superbly balanced readings. But he was much more than a Bruckner and Mahler specialist. His interests ran from Baroque repertory to a fascinating mix of 20th-century composers, with Busoni, Berg, Janacek, Nielsen, and Prokofiev.

Today’s vinyl share was the first version of the Fifth that I ever heard. I've heard other fine performances but it remains the best: dark, powerful, weighty, full of depth, this interpretation underscores Horenstein's uncanny understanding of Nielsen, a composer he knew personally. The pacing is superb; from the quiet opening to the final cadence, when the last notes of the melody fly off into space on their own momentum. It's also the only drum solo - ferocious side drumming of Alfred Dukes - in the versions I have heard that is powerful enough that it might disrupt the orchestra. Saga Drom is nice filler.

Happy Listening!

Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No.5, op. 50 (Original Version)
Saga-Drøm, op. 39
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Jascha Horenstein, conducting
Label: Nonesuch ‎– H-71236
Format: Vinyl, LP, Album
Released: 1969

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