Jascha Horenstein & the American Symphony Orchestra

Volume XCIX, No. 11December, 1999

Michael Spengler

Classical record labels large and small are reissuing works by conductors of the “Golden Era,” giving us timeless interpretations of such giants as Fritz Reiner, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Pierre Monteux and many others. One member of that generation who has yet to fully receive his due is Jascha Horenstein.

Born in Kiev in 1898, Horenstein studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and made his professional conducting debut in 1922 with the Vienna Symphony. He apprenticed with Wilhelm Furtwangler, then was appointed Director of the Dusseldorf Opera in 1929. Fleeing the Nazis in 1933, he conducted orchestras in France, Russia, Australia and Palestine (Israel) until arriving in the United States in 1939. He taught at the New School and conducted the NYC-WPA (Works Progress Administration) Symphony, which led to four concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Further travels included South America. He later returned to France, where he premiered Berg’s “Wozzeck” in 1951.

Horenstein’s recording career began in earnest in 1952, with Vox, for whom he recorded his first Mahler Ninth. Of that recording, New York Times writer Alex Ross wrote in 1994 that he “offers extraordinary insights, with a tangible terror smoldering in the transitional passages in the first movement.”

He recorded the Mahler Ninth three additional times, including a Carnegie Hall performance in November 1969 with the American Symphony Orchestra. In the same article, Ross wrote that the recent Music & Arts release of that performance has “the swaying, searching energy typical of the conductor.” Several 802 members reflected on the 30th anniversary of that historic performance.

“He was terrific,” recalls ASO trumpeter James Stubbs. “He was very clear, the pacing was very good, and the emotional levels were carefully worked out. He was enthusiastically received.”

Cellist Chaim Zemach had played under Horenstein previously, with the Suisse-Romande and Israel Philharmonic orchestras. “He was very aristocratic – a complicated character – and Mahler fit well with his psychological makeup. We were discovering something, playing sort of ‘seat of the pants,’ ” Zemach said. “It was pioneering because the Ninth was complex for the orchestra. And for him it was a labor of love.”

WNYC (noting that it was doing so “in cooperation with Local 802 of the AFM”) broadcast the final rehearsal, giving glimpses of Horenstein at work. At one point he instructs the strings to “make a crescendo. Not for the sake of the crescendo, but to avoid a diminuendo.” At another he tells the percussionist playing glockenspiel to “always play as though it were a Concerto for Glockenspiel and Orchestra.” Zemach remembers Horenstein as “concerned about balance and avoiding routine. He was interesting because he was different.”

During a taped interview the day before the rehearsals started, Buck Hoeffler asked him: “Why pick Mahler’s Ninth?” Horenstein replied impishly, “What’s wrong about it?” Then he explained that, after an absence of some years, “Why should I bring something as established as Tchaikovsky or Berlioz or Strauss? I suggested it to Maestro Stokowski and he accepted it immediately, without the slightest hesitation.”

Horenstein did, however, object to being characterized merely as an “exponent of Mahler and Bruckner.” In a rehearsal break interview, he caught WNYC’s interviewer off-guard by saying, “I conduct all good music – from the 16th to the 21st centuries.”

The orchestra left a good impression on Horenstein. In the Hoeffler interview, he expressed regret at not having heard them play under Stokowski before beginning his rehearsals with them. But he told WNYC, “I’m very happy to be associated this week with the American Symphony. Maestro Stokowski picked such an excellent group of not only young, but very young, musicians completely devoted with their heart and their mind and their work to music. It is a great experience and inspiration for me.”

Of the concert itself, New York Times reviewer Donal Henahan wrote that Horenstein and the ASO gave a “realization of the Ninth that struck to the nerve centers of the massive score. The immense finale…was guided by Mr. Horenstein with masterly control and sensitivity. The youthful orchestra, persuaded to enter completely into the score’s violent swings of emotion, its excesses of sound and its urgent need for singing in every measure, played magnificently.”

“Even after his death 26 years ago, people still talk about him,” his son Peter says. “I saw Sir Simon Rattle after a concert not long ago. When we were introduced he hugged me and said that when he was a student he never missed any of my father’s concerts. Father always did have an appeal to young people.

“The closest my father got to having his own orchestra was with the London Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s. This was when their principal players included (hornist) Barry Tuckwell, (clarinetist) Gervase de Peyer and (flutist) James Galway.”

“The closest my father got to having his own orchestra was with the London Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s. This was when their principal players included (hornist) Barry Tuckwell, (clarinetist) Gervase de Peyer and (flutist) James Galway.”

“We were hoping that he would become more involved with us,” said Stubbs. Plans were made, according to Horenstein’s assistant, Joel Lazar, who wrote a letter “proposing amazing programs, works including Bruckner 6, the full orchestra version of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, and the Berg Violin Concerto.” In a letter to his son Peter, Horenstein wrote: “Stokowski called me up…and invited me for concerts, actually two pairs. We decided on December 3/4 and 10/11 1972.” But by then, Horenstein was too ill to carry it out.

Jascha Horenstein died on April 2, 1973. A popular legend has it that, among his last words, were: “The saddest thing about leaving this earth is never to hear ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ again.”

(Michael Spengler is a trumpeter and 802 member who has toured with Southside Johnny, Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen, and who was first captivated by a Horenstein recording at age 14. His research for this article was facilitated by James Stubbs, Chaim Zemach, Don Smithers and Janet Hill, Lynne Meloccaro at the ASO, Carnegie Hall Assistant Archivist Rob Hudson, Joel Lazar, Peter Horenstein, and especially Yakov Horenstein. Yakov’s Biography and Style Analysis of Jascha Horenstein can be accessed on line at: For those without web access, a copy will be left at the 802 library).

Further Listening:

Although Jascha Horenstein’s conducting and recording career was about as “freelance” as one can be, a number of reissued recordings are available. Music & Arts, Unicorn, Vox, EMI, Chesky and BBC Classics have put out a number of them.

Vox plans an April release of four CDs that will include the Brahms First (note to jazz listeners: the 1963 LP cover of this lists “Dr. R. Van Gelder” as the mastering engineer) and Third symphonies, Stravinsky’s “Rite” and “Firebird,” and an early monaural Shostakovich 5. Vox has even more in the can, ranging from Prokofiev to Dvorak to Beethoven. Hopefully these will eventually come out, for they will certainly dispel any notion of Horenstein as solely a “Mahler/Bruckner” expert.