Jascha Horenstein’s father was Russian, and his mother Austrian: it was she who taught him to play the piano. When he was six the family moved from Kiev to Königsberg, and thence to Vienna in 1911; here he studied Indian philosophy at the university and violin with Adolph Busch. From 1917 he was in addition a student of composition with Franz Schreker and of theory with Joseph Marx at the Vienna Academy of Music. Horenstein began to conduct in 1919, when he founded the ‘Freie Orchester-Vereinigung’ (Free Orchestra Association) of students and amateurs, but when Schreker moved to Berlin in 1920 to teach at the High School for Music, Horenstein followed him, becoming a member of the same composition class as Aloys Hába and Ernst Krenek. His decision to make conducting his career came as a result of his early concert-going and the experience of hearing Nikisch, Walter and Weingartner: indeed he once said that he never conducted Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 without hearing Nikisch’s performance in his mind. In 1922 he became conductor of the Berlin Schubert Choir and the Gemischter Choir, and in the following year was engaged as Furtwängler’s assistant, rehearsing Bach’s B minor Mass for him at Frankfurt am Main.
Also in 1923 Horenstein made his debut with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducting Mahler’s then little-known Symphony No. 1. Later he recalled, ‘After that occasion, like any brash young man, I thought I knew everything there was to know about conducting. Then I remember meeting Klemperer, who had just given a magnificent performance of Mahler’s Ninth, and I had the chance to speak to him. He told me quite frankly that it takes twenty years to become a conductor. Naturally, at twenty-five, I was very disappointed, but now I know that he was right. Indeed, I would go further and say it takes forty years to become one.’ Horenstein conducted the Blüthner Orchestra in Berlin during 1924 and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra between 1925 and 1928, as well as being a guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1926, with whom he later made the first recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. On the recommendation of Furtwängler he was appointed general music director at Düsseldorf in 1928, but this was to be the last permanent appointment of his career, as he developed a reputation for artistic independence: in 1929 he conducted the first performance of Berg’s Lyric Suite in Berlin, and in 1930 he presented Wozzeck under the composer’s supervision at Düsseldorf. He came into contact with many of the major composers of the period, such as Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Richard Strauss, Nielsen, Busoni and Janáček, and continued to conduct their music in concert and on record for the rest of his life.
With the advent of the National Socialist government in Germany, Horenstein, who was Jewish, was forced to leave the country. For the next few years he led a wandering existence, conducting in Brussels, Paris, Vienna, Warsaw and the USSR, touring Australia and New Zealand in 1937, and Scandinavia with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo during the same year; with Toscanini he was one of four conductors to lead the new Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1938. Following the outbreak of World War II Horenstein reached America in 1940, where he conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Works Project Administration Symphony Orchestra in 1942; he also toured to South America. Although he took American citizenship, Horenstein returned to Europe after the war, settling in Lausanne and pursuing the career of a guest conductor for the rest of his life. His numerous appearances with symphony orchestras and opera companies throughout the world were punctuated by several major milestones. These included the first performances in Paris of Wozzeck (1950) and of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (1951); an incandescent performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the 1958 Leeds Festival in Yorkshire, when he substituted for Otto Klemperer; and a landmark performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ at the Royal Albert Hall in London during 1959, an event which many saw as the trigger for the Mahler-boom of subsequent years in England. Both these latter performances were broadcast and have been preserved.
The origin of the Mahler performance has been told by the conductor Charles Gerhardt, himself a disciple of Horenstein, who while recording with Gerhardt at a later date related to him the story of what had happened. Apparently colleagues at the BBC had been discussing their budget, concerned as they had not used all the funds available to them. As the BBC’s budget came from government, if money was not spent in one year it would be lost in the future, so Horenstein had suggested, ‘You want to use up your budget? Just let me do the Mahler Eighth!’ Fortunately the BBC took him up on his suggestion. The huge requirements of the score – virtually a double orchestra, extra brass in the balcony, huge choruses and eight vocal soloists – fully served their financial purpose. Because of the numbers involved and scheduling difficulties with the Royal Albert Hall, the actual concert was the first and only time that all of the participants performed the work together, probably accounting in part for the palpable sense of occasion that may be felt in the sound recording. This was also to be the only time that Horenstein conducted this work. Later milestones, in addition to numerous concerts, notably with the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, included the American première of Busoni’s Doktor Faust in New York (1964), an extraordinary reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the BBC Promenade Concerts in 1966, Nielsen’s Saul and David performed in Copenhagen in 1972, and two memorable productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: Fidelio in 1961 and Parsifal in 1973. The performances of Parsifal were to be Horenstein’s last: they followed a heart attack in Minnesota in 1972.
A slight figure physically, but with a commanding presence, Horenstein rehearsed and conducted with what one orchestral player described as ‘gritty persistence’, demanding complete accuracy and fidelity to the musical text as the foundation for interpretations which aimed at intensity of expression, precise balance and organic growth. Inspired by study of Eastern cultures, Horenstein viewed works as a whole with a single over-arching span, to which he also applied the concept of breathing in the phrasing of his performances. Other notable characteristics were his mastery of transitions, and his use of silence and pauses to create tension. Above all with Horenstein the listener very strongly experienced what he described as his quest, learnt from Furtwängler, ‘…to search for the meaning of the music rather than being concerned with the music itself, to emphasise the metaphysical side of the work rather than its empirical one’ (quoted in High Fidelity, October 1973).
Unusually it was Horenstein’s commercially-recorded discs, principally for the Vox label, that led to his international recognition, rather than his recordings reflecting an already established fame. This in turn may reflect the unique character of his interpretations. Although he disliked being labelled as a specialist, there can be no doubt that his recordings of Mahler for Vox (the Symphonies Nos 1 and 9) and later for the British companies Unicorn and EMI (the Symphonies Nos 3 and 4) are outstanding achievements. Equally as important were his Vox recordings of two Bruckner symphonies, Nos 8 and 9, which should be set against his pre-war recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra of the Symphony No. 7. His account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, was the first to be issued on a single, double-sided, long-playing record, and enjoyed a very wide international circulation. In Baroque music Horenstein recorded what arguably might be seen as a very early approach to authentic performance practice with his ‘small-band’ account of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; while in the music of the nineteenth century his interpretation of Liszt’s Faust Symphony possesses a searching quality absent from most performances; and his Brahms conducting, notably in his account of the Symphony No. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra, has a sense of drama strongly underlined by his use of pregnant pauses, as already noted. His readings of music by Schoenberg, particularly Verklärte Nacht and the Chamber Symphony No. 1, are extraordinarily sensual and not in the least rebarbative; while his accounts of music by Janáček (Taras Bulba and the Sinfonietta) and of Nielsen (Saul and David) have a documentary significance.
In addition to his commercial discography many of Horenstein’s broadcast studio and ‘live’ concert performances have been reissued on many different labels. Especially important are the London accounts of the Symphonies Nos 8 and 9 of Mahler, already mentioned, and an unparalleled reading of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, made with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra which had never previously played this work and was therefore entirely susceptible to Horenstein’s musical intentions. On his death bed Horenstein is reputed to have said, ‘One of the greatest regrets in dying is that I shall never again be able to hear Das Lied von der Erde.’ This acute sense of loss is, in a strange way, captured in this unique performance.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).