Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung Op.24 (1888/89)
Norma Proctor (contralto)
Denis Wick (trombone), William Lang (flügelhorn)
Ambrosian Singers, Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 27-29 July 1970, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 stereo download
High Definition Tape Transfers HDTT15476 [120]

From July 27 to 29 1970, the London Symphony Orchestra assembled at the Fairfield Halls Croydon to record Mahler’s mighty Symphony No,3 in D minor conducted by Jascha Horenstein for the small British independent record label Unicorn.  Recording this repertoire with this conductor was something of a passion project for label owner John Goldsmith.  According to a personal note in the liner by the conductor’s cousin Mischa Horenstein he had already paid for a very successful version of Symphony No.1 from these same artists and went as far as mortgaging his own house to raise funds for the Symphony No.3 project.  What might have appeared to be a financial and artistic risk instead has become one of the classic Mahler recordings.  Helped to no small degree by a pretty stellar production team of Bob Auger engineering and Harold Lawrence producing with Mahler specialist (at Horenstein’s request) Deryck Cooke on hand to advise.  The impetus for this recording came from a concert the same performers had given just two months previously in London so this was not ‘just’ a read/record session.  The resulting two LP set won various contemporary awards, gained a rosette (as I recall) in the Penguin Guide and for many years remained a reference recording.  The transfer to early CD did result in some concerns over aspects of the original engineering (and early digital transfer techniques) but overall its reputation has remained strong even allowing for nay-sayers such as David Hurwitz who is generally critical of Horenstein’s Mahler and this performance in particular.  For this site Tony Duggan’s survey – last updated in 2006 – places this performance at the very top of the pile stating; “This remains one of the greatest recordings of any Mahler symphony ever set down and I think it always will.”

There is more to discover about this recording however.  Unusually, John Goldsmith, gave American sound engineer and Mahler aficionado Jerry Bruck permission – at his own expense and using his own equipment – to set up a quite separate and independent recording rig to record those same sessions in parallel with the ‘official’ rig.  Quite why Goldsmith did this is not clear – although a pragmatic realisation that if there were any technical failures on the Unicorn recording there would be a viable back-up.  The use of Bruck’s recordings were not required and until now they have been known about but were never edited or prepared for commercial release. Whereas Auger’s rig used multiple microphones and an eight track one inch recorder, Bruck was an early advocate for minimalist microphone placement and surround sound engineering.  His rig was a carefully positioned but ultimately quite simple – to quote extensively from the fascinating booklet accompanying this new release; “Mic Array and Quadraphony: Bruck used a unique mic set-up that captured the sessions with remarkably well-focused clarity. No fan of multi-miking, he used a fi­xed array of four hypercardioid Schoeps mics placed in the form of a tetrahedron (a “pyramid” with a triangular base) with a mic at each corner, about one meter apart, with cancellation at about 150° off axis, so the null of each microphone was at about the maximum point of sensitivity of all the other mics. –This experimental array was situated relatively near the orchestra, with the two front mics recording the left and right channels, another one facing the rear wall of the hall in the same plane, and the fourth pointed straight up at the ceiling. Unlike some recording set-ups that place mics in the rear of the space to capture ambient signals, Bruck captured the ambient hall sound as reflected back to the nominal listener’s ears from the hall’s rear walls and ceiling, with that nominal listener seated roughly in the center of the mic array.  The intent was to capture a hemisphere of sound where the nominal listener was situated, with the “up” and rear channels consisting entirely of reflected sound (an exception is the flugelhorn solos in the third movement; that instrument was situated in the back of the hall)”.

I do not intend to review this performance in the usual way.  Readers who are considering this version of this recording will have made their own minds up regarding its artistic and performing qualities.  If you share Hurwitz’s disdain no amount of engineering wizardry will change that view.  My personal opinion is that this is a superb performance and furthermore it has never sounded better than here.  Briefly put, in what is a very long symphony, Horenstein takes a long view.  As a consequence, certain moments may be more volatile, more instantly ‘exciting’ in other more impetuous performances but the impact of Horenstein’s methodically paced version is a sense of cumulative grandeur.  The climaxes when they are achieved are hard-won and cathartically rewarding.  I do enjoy other more impulsive versions too for sure but I have to say I find this to be a deeply rewarding, compelling and indeed moving interpretation. 

As usual HDTT offer the purchaser a wide range of formats.  Sadly I do not have the home set-up to appreciate Bruck’s original 4.0 surround conception and so I listened to the ‘standard’ 24/96 stereo download.  The first thing to say is that for a 54 year old recording it is astonishingly fine.  The soundstage is superbly clear – ideally wide and deep.  Percussion – always a touchstone for me in terms of recording fidelity – is rendered with remarkable precision – not just in terms of audio fidelity but also placement within the overall orchestral soundscape.  So many recordings will spotlight a triangle or a glockenspiel but here there seems to be an ideal balance between audible presence but within a believable aural picture.  There was some criticism/comment with the original Unicorn release regarding unrealistic audio balances with undue wind and brass prominence as well as bass lightness.  There is still an element of the latter although my sense is that this is an audio artefact of the recording venue itself.  The Fairfield Halls as a concert venue has never been renowned as the ‘easiest’ of places to play with a certain lack of bloom and dryness making it less comfortable for orchestras than other venues with greater resonance.  Certainly compared to many of the larger/resonant venues that became popular classical recording venues in the decades following this release there is an objective clarity here that makes considerable demands of the players.  But interestingly if that worked slightly against the original Unicorn multi-miked approach here it gives Bruck’s minimalist technique a precision of placement that benefits the complexity of Mahler’s scoring.

For sure, on my equipment I still hear a relative lightness in the deep bass of the orchestra but somehow this aids Horenstein’s approach which has a sense of objectivity and precision technically and emotionally.  I did note a couple of instance when a big instrumental gesture could be heard ‘slapping’ off the opposite wall of the hall – so played by, say, the trombones on the right hand channel and a near-instantaneous bounce from the left.  But again this is a real-world characteristic of the hall and no more.  The movements which feature the vocal contributions of Norma Proctor and the various choral groups are equally successful from a technical/recording standpoint.  Auger reserved two of his eight tracks for their contribution whereas this Bruck recording presents them exactly as heard and balanced in the hall which it has to be said sounds near ideal with clarity and precise positioning again notable.  The liner counsels listeners to be aware of the wide dynamic range of this recording.  Horenstein’s careful graduation of dynamics – especially at the louder end of the range – is wonderfully caught.  Certainly, I felt as aware as I ever have been listening to this performance that the conductor does not simply allow every climax to be of a similar overwhelming power – perhaps the original Unicorn balance slightly reduced this subtle control by emphasising the more forceful wind and brass instruments.

Contrary to appearances this is not quite an identical performance to the Unicorn version.  Except for the 3rd movement which Bruck himself edited back in the 1970’s, the session tapes were left untouched and unedited for fifty years.  In the interim, the original production session notes have been lost for the long first movement.  So alongside all the complex technical work to create a coherent single movement, the restoration team have had to try and recreate the original final edit from the multiple takes – long and short – that constituted the sessions.  That the result is so effective is great testament to their skill. I noted a very slight difference in running times between the original Unicorn CD release and this one but to be honest the over-arching conception sweeps away any such tiny points.

A fair point to be considered is that this work is far more common – certainly in the recording studio – today than it was fifty years ago.  As such there have been many wholly successful recordings by great conductors and orchestras to compare with this version in a way that in 1970 was simply not the case.  But that said the catalogue then did still contain Bernstein/NYPO, Solti/Decca/LSO and Kubelik/Bavarian RSO – three versions that are still well regarded and in whose company Horenstein was considered on equal terms.  So the argument that in some way this performance has been artistically superseded simply does not measure up.  The great benefit of this newly engineered release is that it further reveals the subtlety and detail of Horenstein’s conception that to my ear reinforces its stature as one of the great Mahler 3’s.  One last quick technical detail – there was briefly available a 4-channel version of this performance on a Japanese label.  However this was derived from a 4 channel mix-down that Bob Auger did specifically for the production of those LP’s – it can be read about here but it is not a previous release of these Bruck tapes.

If the Mahler symphony is the ‘main event’, a very considerable filler is Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss.  This performance has remained in the catalogue for fifty years too – although I must admit I had not realised that it had been part of the same recording sessions.  For many years this was coupled – first on Unicorn and then latterly on Chandos – with a 1972 recording by the same artists of Hindemith’s Symphony ‘Mathis Der Maler.‘  The liner tells a rather nice story worth repeating in full; “the recording presented here with the LSO had to be completed during the sixth and last of the Mahler three sessions, which presented a problem for John [Goldsmith]. Musicians’ Union rules permitted a maximum of 20 minutes use of recorded music during any 3-hour session and John had to explain to Horenstein that he would get a hefty overtime bill if the recording took longer. Horenstein became quite upset about this and said something to the effect that his interpretation “could not be compromised” but then agreed to make the recording anyway, which takes slightly over 22 minutes.   This was faster than his usual timing but still too long for the MU. Fortunately, their representative in the orchestra, one of the players who was also close to John, turned a blind eye and allowed the infraction to pass under the radar. He and the orchestra were very happy with their relationship with Unicorn and Horenstein and wanted it to continue, which it did very fruitfully.”

This performance/recording never achieved the reference status of the Mahler but returning to it now it is easy to hear many virtues in the performance and the interpretation.  The running time here of 22:10 does place it at the swifter end of the range of timings – but that said the famous Kempe/Dresden version (also recorded in 1970) is only some 20 seconds slower while Karajan’s 1974 performance – the one originally coupled with Janowitz’s Four Last Songs – is around an opulent 27:00.  But at no point does Horenstein feel rushed.  For sure this is a leaner version with the feverish sections urgent and fraught but again the great clarity and precision of this new recording underlines for me the validity of Horenstein’s beautifully controlled interpretation.  One thing I did notice both here and in the Mahler was the excellence of the individual playing of the principles on the LSO.  Of course in 1970 they were a stellar ensemble but here you can really hear playing of understated sophistication and musicianship.  Direct comparison with a Chandos version of the original release again shows very slight differences in duration which suggests again the choice of alternative takes.  Fine as Bob Auger’s engineering was I have to say it is trumped by Bruck’s version.  Both scores are presented with remarkable audio fidelity with little or no analogue hiss and no overload or distortion that I could hear even when listening closely on headphones.

There are various interviews and articles by Bruck online which indicate a professional life devoted to the production of recordings of great fidelity.  His website – telling named Posthorn Productions relates his professional career – I realised that one of his few other generally available recordings was a technically admired version of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 (including Blumine) from James Judd and the Florida PO.  Lee Denham in his comparative survey was not that impressed by the music-making but noted a distinctive amount of inner detail – perhaps this was more down to the engineering than the interpretation?!

Unlike the current trend for revisiting ‘original master tapes’ and claiming new levels of fidelity this is a genuinely new and rather exciting release of a much-admired recording.  Thanks and congratulations must be paid not just to Jerry Bruck for his trail-blazing work of over half a century ago but to the team of Robert Witrak, Chief Engineer, HDTT for transferring the session tapes and John H. Haley, President, Harmony Restorations, LLC for the subsequent editing and restoration.  As ever HDTT releases come at a premium price point and in the past I have not always been sure that the final results have merited the cost.  But to hear these compelling performances – great testaments to all the performers involved – revealed in such a pin-sharp and exhilarating manner has been a genuine thrill.

Nick Barnard

Availability: High Definition Tape Transfers