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Jascha Horenstein

The Horenstein Style

First of all, I would caution against passing judgment on Jasha Horenstein's recordings after only one or two hearings. Like all good art, Horenstein's does not reveal its beauties immediately. It is an acquired taste, like good whisky, so you have to give it a few shots before it goes down smoothly.

Secondly, although mention will be made of little phrases here and there which Horenstein does to perfection, you should listen to the entire movement or even the entire piece in one go, because there is an inexorable logic to the whole – rather than the details – which interested Horenstein enormously. This is very evident in his conducting style, and is worth remembering always.

Having said that, here are some detailed observations about Horenstein's style which I find particularly distinctive and noteworthy of mention:

A Conductor for the Twentieth Century

Jascha Horenstein grew up together with the Second Viennese School, and was not afraid of dissonance. His renditions are notable for their emphasis on exposing and exploiting the harmonic tensions in the music he performed, which created its own special kind of sound, perhaps not to everyone's liking.

With Horenstein, it's the intensity of the rendition rather than the precision or the elegance which counts (although he could turn a phrase with the best of them), but with the intensity you'll notice a very transparent sound in which all the forces are very clearly defined and balanced in their respective choirs, yet given enough freedom and space to express the topology of the phrase in question. In much the same way as Schoenberg liberated music from the restrictions of tonality, it could be argued that Horenstein, by giving equal weight and importance to almost every section of his orchestra, created a uniquely contemporary sound.

As mentioned above, all this sometimes comes at the expense of accurate ensemble playing, because Horenstein demands a lot from his players. It's not easy to express a musical line with feeling, and even harder to do it with others, so that the ensemble of the orchestra is compromised when unusual demands such as these have to be answered. The downside may be the occasional slip up but the gain is in being able to hear all the strands in their harmonic context, yet expressed with an attention to form and line, and especially to the breath contour of the phrase, which is unique to horenstein.

Horenstein encourages his first desk players to play out, to phrase, to stand out, quite often much more forcefully than other conductors. This obviously has an effect on the overall sound. It's not always a beautiful sound, but then much of the repertoire he performed was concerned with expressions of struggle and faith, and these are not always expressed beautifully by the composer's themselves (in the sense of beauty being elegance, harmony, grace, repose and so on; you could hardly describe Mahler's music in these terms). Horenstein went beyond the concept that music must be beautiful to express anything worthwhile. In this he was very influenced by the Second Viennese School.

It is this balance of forces which gives Horenstein's sound its unique quality.

Also, the dynamic range of Horenstein's orchestra is far greater than that achieved by many others, from the softest of delicate pianissimi to the most majestic of orchestral fortes. In concert the only other conductor I heard who could make an orchestra play with quite so wide a dynamic range was Stokowski (much admired by Horenstein), and you hear this in all of Horenstein's recordings, especially the Brahms and Mahler Firsts. This fact created a lot of problems for Horenstein's recording engineers who were not used to such extremes, and in my opinion accounts in part for the poor quality of many of his recordings (happily, Charles Gerhardt of RCA was responsible for the Brahms 1st as well as several other excellent recordings now available on the Chesky label).

1) Orchestral Playing and Sound

With Horenstein don't look for precision playing and whipcrack chords alla Toscanini. If this kind of music making excites you (and it is exciting), you won't be satisfied with Horenstein's recordings because he was not overly interested in this approach. Certainly Horenstein appreciated good ensemble, and was as disappointed with sloppy playing as anyone would be, but these were not things he stressed so that in his recordings, many of them from live concerts, you'll occasionally hear slips, bad entries, ensemble or intonation problems and so on. (I know for a fact that even in the recording studio Jascha H would sometimes let inaccuracies go by without correcting them if he thought that the spirit of the piece was expressed in the way he wanted).

Apart from some early appointments which culminated in a four year period as head of the Düsseldorf Opera in the early thirties, Horenstein never held a permanent position with an orchestra, so that when he performed it was always as a guest conductor, whose job is not usually to teach the orchestra ensemble techniques or how to stay in tune. In any case precision playing, in the sense of everyone doing it exactly together, balanced, and in strict rhythm, is not characteristic of Horenstein's style (there is another kind of precision, that of expressing something accurately, of which Horenstein was a master, but I'll mention that more under phrasing below. Obviously though, how you express something will affect the sound you make). So, with Horenstein don't expect Toscanini-, Szell- or Reiner-like sound and precision.

If you like the lush, rich tones and rounded edges of the Karajan approach you'll be disappointed too, because that is not the way Horenstein wanted his orchestra to sound. Horenstein came from the Furtwängler school of conducting, which stressed the expressionistic nature of music. He strove to reveal the logic and clarity of the music he conducted, and indulged in quite a bit of freedom to achieve this. Horenstein's approach is different from Furtwängler's in that the orchestral playing is more relaxed, even chamberlike. This is the key word – chamberlike. I suggest that Horenstein's use of the orchestra, and therefore its sound, is like the playing of a large chamber ensemble, where the orchestral choirs are more like soloists, rather than sections, which fuse into one body.

Horenstein's orchestra is lighter, but also less compact than Furtwängler's while his readings are a little less ecstatic, but not lacking in power or freedom nevertheless. I once asked H. how his interpretations had changed over the years, and he replied that today (this was in 1970 or thereabouts) he downplayed the romantic side more and more. Furtwängler makes beautiful music but almost incidentally, because he seems more concerned with reaching the emotional heights of the piece, of getting to the stratosphere, than of revealing its beauty. The same can be said of Horenstein, except that he plumbs the depths rather than scales the peaks.

I would describe Horenstein's sound as more "spread out" than F's., while by a "less compact" orchestra I mean a looser, less integrated sound than F's, explained maybe by Horenstein's recurring role as a guest rather than as chief conductor of any of the orchestras he conducted. Don't forget that Furtwängler had years of practice with relatively few orchestras, while Horenstein was the eternal wanderer. In the UK alone he was associated with at least12 orchestras, and over his 50 year career conducted in every corner of the globe. The nearest he got to a protracted relationship with any major orchestra occured only during the last 13 years of his life as a regular guest conductor in London and may explain why, to the novice, there is no readily recognisable "Horenstein sound".

To those of us familiar with Jascha Horenstein's style, however, there is a very definite Horenstein sound, with its own color, dynamic, and unique attention to detail. In almost all of Horenstein's recordings there is an intensity, concentration and sheer power in the orchestral playing which you rarely find elsewhere. You can hear this immediately in the opening eight bar sostenuto of the Brahms First symphony on Chesky, where the orchestra plays with a restrained, held-back power and concentration which ring out with smouldering portent as if the composer was saying "Pay attention – this is serious stuff!".

In these eight bars listen also to the timpani, accompanied by the basses and double bassoon, which pound out that heavy, grim rhythm (pre-echoes of Mahler's 6th?) with which Brahms opens the piece. As you will notice in all of his recordings, Horenstein was very attentive of the timpani, whose sound he nurtured with great care.

As an example of his attention to orchestral color, listen to Horenstein's reading of the last movement of the Brahms First symphony after the famous first horn and flute entries where (letter C in the Dover score) the winds and brass delicately anticipate the glorious end of the symphony. This chorale also includes a double bassoon, although you would never guess it from most recordings because the trombones and horns which accompany it are generally too loud, and because the double bassoon is usually treated as an instrument of color only, i.e. not as an independent presence in its own right. With Horenstein you can savour this superb instrument in all its bovine splendor, including that glorious low C that leads back to the chord, because he lets it play as an equal, not subordinate, member of the choir. I have yet to hear a recording of this piece in which the double bassoon figures quite so prominently.

As Brahms was one of the first to incorporate the double bassoon regularly into his symphonic music (he used it in three of the four symphonies), he obviously wants you to hear it, otherwise why include it?. I am willing to bet that most people who have not seen a score and listen to recordings of this piece would never even realise that a double bassoon is present. Not so with Horenstein. Obviously, if you're going to treat the instrument like this, its going to affect the way the orchestra sounds, as well as make unusual demands on the abilities of the players to respond, singly and together.

2) Phrasing

In any biography of Horenstein you will see that while studying music and Indian philosophy in Vienna, he heard Artur Nikisch conducting, which so influenced him that he abandoned his other studies and devoted all his time to music. Now what was a teenager, son of prosperous Ukrainian emigre Jewish merchants in Vienna, doing studying Indian philosophy during World War I?

I'll leave this to the biographers, but suffice it to say here that this fascination for alternative cultures never deserted him (I can vouch for this personally), and considerably influenced his music making. In particular the importance of breathing in Indian culture was a lesson that he applied constantly to his music, and you can hear this in the long, swelling, sweeping phrases that slowly build up over a long time span and seem to go on forever until the tension is almost unbearable. Just like one huge inhalation, which culminates (i.e. changes to exhalation) at just the right point musically. Horenstein was a master of this.

For an example of what I mean, go to the coda of the last movement of the Brahms First (letter Q), which most play just fast and loudly. Here Horenstein builds up the tension slowly, by shaping the phrases so that the music arrives at its triumphant conclusion with a kind of grim, inexorable logic. Notice the chorale mentioned earlier, this time (measure 407) played forte by the brass and winds, which ends with a crescendo (not in the score) that sets off the final statement in a most unusual way. This kind of concentration and intensity is pure Horenstein.

By contrast, listen to the delicate little eight bar string transition to the second theme and development section in the last movement of Mahler's First on Unicorn (bar 166 or letter 15 in the Universal score). Talk about authentic Mahler – this is IT! These are golden moments in music and after you hear them done in this way, anything else seems wrong or even perverse.

The other point concerning phrasing is Horenstein's way with crescendos, which he seems able to stretch out over enormously long timespans with an iron control over rhythm and tempo development, so that just when it seems that the orchestra is already giving everything it's got, he asks for more and they respond! This is real art, and Horenstein achieves it by a clever manipulation of tempo and dynamics whose apparent simplicity conceals the considerable difficulty in achieving and executing these nuances. Check out numerous examples of Horenstein's way with crescendos (and decrescendos) in the Brahms and Mahler.

3) Silences and Pauses

No one, in my opinion, and I mean NO ONE, gets more out of pauses and silences than Horenstein. They are all over the place so I don't need to tell you where to go, but the following Mahler and Brahms examples are particularly noteworthy:

At measure 374 of the last movement of Mahler's First the score indicates a ritardando followed by a key change (No. 34) over which Mahler writes "Luftpause" (pause for breath). Not "take" a breath, but "pause" for breath, indicating the inclusion of the whole orchestra in this and not just the winds. Here Horenstein takes a longer pause than anyone else I've heard, pregnant with the foreboding nature of the following statement. Most versions I've heard don't emphasise this pause at all, losing a great expressive opportunity.

Even better, listen to the pauses and hesitations in the five bars later on before No. 40 (bars 443-447) which lead to the return of the theme. You could write an essay on these five bars alone. Pure magic!

For pregnant pauses in Brahms' First listen to the fourth and third bar before the Coda of the first movement (letter O bars 430 and 431, see below).

4) Transitions

I put this fourth, but arguably the mastery of transition sections is the most important aspect of a successful performance. They are the backbone or skeleton around which the music takes its' shape and anyone who can negotiate these passages correctly will achieve a coherent performance. Negotiating transition passages was possibly Horenstein's greatest talent. Here, in my opinion, he surpasses even Furtwängler for the grace with which he moves from one section to another.

Try the transition passage between the development section (Letter M around bar 375) and the final coda which starts at Letter 0 (measure 434) of the first movement of Brahms' First to see what I mean. This whole section is marked by Horenstein's very gradual and almost unnoticed slowing down of the tempo which gives maximum effect to the final peroration when it comes. In particular notice also the slight elongation of the pauses in the fourth and third bars right before the coda which jolt you into the final section in a way that no-one else in my experience has ever done but, and here is the point, it makes perfect sense. I don't know many other versions which can sustain over 60 measures that kind of smoldering, intense energy kept under wraps by an awesomely controlled tempo such as Horenstein achieves here.

I could go on and on but I think the idea is clear – listen to Horenstein's transition sections, or bridge passages, on any of his recordings. They simply take your breath away.

I am researching a biography on Horenstein, so I would like anyone to contact me who has any memories or other information which might be of interest.

Copyright © 1998 by MIsha Horenstein.