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


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 Jascha Horenstein. 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)