Jascha Horenstein
The conductor Jascha Horenstein

The unique artistic profile of the conductor Jascha Horenstein, whose importance to the history of performance in the 20th century was recognised in his lifetime by only a few, manifests itself almost completely in his gramophone recordings. The wealth of live recordings, fortunately preserved in mostly clear-sounding CD transfers, help to complete the picture of a conductor “who was of a type completely incompatible with the conventional kapellmeister, [and] for whom music became an explosive” (Adorno).

Born in Kiev on 6th May 1898, as a child Horenstein knew life on the move. In 1907 the Horenstein family moved first to Königsberg, where his mother began to teach him the violin and the city music director, Max Brode, fostered his talent.. In 1911 came the next move, to Vienna. Adolf Busch became Horenstein’s violin teacher, and he studied composition with Franz Schreker at the Konservatorium. He also studied philosophy at the university. In 1920 Horenstein followed Schreker to Berlin and joined the circle around Ferruccio Busoni.

Horenstein’s conducting career began as successor to Hermann Scherchens with the Arbeiter–Chor Groß-Berlin and the Berlin Schubert–Chor. He gave his debut as orchestral conductor in 1923 with the Vienna Symphony in Gustav Mahler’s 1st symphony. Wilhelm Furtwängler noticed the talented young conductor and made him his assistant. For Furtwängler concerts he studied Béla Bartók’s 1st piano concerto with the composer at the piano and led the rehearsals for Carl Nielsen’s 5th symphony with the composer present, a work which would later find a central place in his own repertoire. Horenstein first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1926, and only two years later he made with them an incredible series of pioneering recordings, including Anton Bruckner’s 7th symphony the first ever electrical recording of a Bruckner symphony.

Thanks to Furtwängler, in 1928 Horenstein became first principal conductor and one year later general music director of the Düsseldorf Opera. During five years at one of the most important opera houses in Europe, he established himself with spectacular success as a Wagner conductor and made a name for himself as a champion of contemporary opera – as conductor of the Düsseldorf premiere of “Wozzeck”, for example, with Alban Berg present. The young conductor also attracted international attention, particularly through his concerts in Paris.

Nonetheless, Düsseldorf would remain the only directorship Horenstein held during his long career. In 1930 the National Socialists had already begun stirring up public opinion against the “Russian Jew from Kiev”, in spite of the fact that Horenstein had held Prussian citizenship since 1929. When the situation became threatening for himself and his young family and the Nazis drove him from his position at the opera, he fled to Paris in March 1933.

There followed what could be described as Horenstein’s odyssey around the world - Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Palestine, Venezuela, Mexico. The brilliant conductor could be found everywhere and nowhere. In 1947 he returned to Europe. In 1950, for the first time since 1929, he was again in a recording studio. For the American company VOX he made a host of recordings over a period of 10 years, many of which are regarded today as definitive, such as Béla Bartók’s 2nd violin concerto with the young violinist Ivry Gitlis, or Gustav Mahler’s 9th symphony with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

In 1950 Horenstein conducted the first French performance of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in Paris, in 1959 in London’s Royal Albert Hall Mahler’s 8th symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra, a legendary performance with 756 performers and an audience of over 6000, and whose importance for the Mahler renaissance in England cannot be over-stated. Horenstein became one of the most sought–after conductors in Britain. He regularly conducted the London orchestras and became (inofficially) permanent guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Exemplary recordings of Mahler’s 1st and 3rd symphonies or Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” document clearly Horenstein’s intense relationship with this orchestra. Thus the unconventional philosopher with the baton, who never really put down artistic roots anywhere, finally established himself with a top international orchestra.

Jascha Horenstein, that great outsider among the significant conductors of the 20th century, nowadays receives more and more the recognition that was often denied him during his lifetime. He died on 2nd April 1973 in London. The aura of his masterly interpretative ability manifests itself in an extensive discography, the absolute epitome of which is the recording of Gustav Mahler’s 3rd symphony with the LSO – to this day unequalled and living proof of Horenstein’s exceptional status as an interpreter of Mahler.

Wolf Zube