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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection
Rae Woodland (soprano)
Janet Baker (contralto)
BBC Chorus and BBC Choral Society
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Recorded 30th July 1963 at the Royal Albert Hall Mono
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4136-2 [79’59]


Stokowski was a mercurial musician and every facet of that larger-than-life personality is evident in this triumphant performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Recorded live at the 1963 Proms – that symphony’s first performance at that festival – it has the panache, gripping inventiveness and long-term vision of that conductor’s finest work in the concert hall.

What is all the more remarkable is that this is a performance which suggests a lifetime of experience with it – listen to how he takes the opening Allegro maestoso in what seems like a single breath – and yet this was only the second time he had ever conducted the symphony; the first was more than 40 years earlier in 1921 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There are questions – why, for example, does Stokowski have the choral altos accompany the contralto in the first eight bars of ‘O Schmerz, du Alldurchdringer’ when acoustically it was unnecessary? But there are dividends to be had elsewhere for this is among the most vividly coloured of all Mahler Seconds, especially in the conductor’s handling of the orchestral woodwind. The fff opening of the fifth movement has a palpable sense of terror about it and at Fig. 8 it becomes almost overwhelming so explosively does Stokowski interpret Mahler’s score. The moment – still for this writer one of the greatest of all Mahler’s inventions – when four trombones and a tuba intone for a magnificent eight bars (at Fig. 10) has a serenity and heavenliness to it that prefigures the Klopstock resurrection theme in the chorus. In recent years, I have only heard Gilbert Kaplan (with the Vienna Philharmonic) and Claudio Abbado (with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra) achieve a similar effect. String diminuendos might not be all they should be and glissandi in the first movement at Fig. 23 are somewhat literally done but these dynamic quibbles don’t distort the view that this is a special performance.

What remains compelling about the performance is its sheer inevitability as if the very first bar of the symphony is the beginning of the end (in Stokowski’s case the chorus’ final summons of ‘Aufersteh’n’); his grasp of the large-scale musical architecture of this symphony is simply remarkable. Both his soloists – but especially Janet Baker – are splendid and the London Symphony Orchestra are superb throughout (certainly very much better than Barbirolli’s Berliners: Testament SBT 1320) with only the final movement really testing their virtuosic limits.

Although this is a mono recording most listeners would be hard pushed to believe it wasn’t early stereo. Listening on first headphones and then on a four-speaker surround sound player I was impressed by how much inner detail survived the transition. The BBC tape is crystal clear: woodwind are clearly heard when in many performances (and especially studio ones) they are muddied and strings have an ambient warmth to them whilst at the same time being able to preserve the LSO’s rather special string tone (’cellos and basses have fabulous depth to them). This is a vivid contrast to Barbirolli’s recent BPO Mahler Second on Testament which is both dry and congested (and indeed a performance that does little to enhance that conductor’s vastly overrated reputation in Mahler). More impressively, the vast choral edifice that closes the work is resplendent in its acoustical balance, a model not just of its time but of ours too. It’s just a pity that the BBC couldn’t have included a second disc with the encore: a repeat of the final movement from the chorus’ entry onwards.

As Robert Angles said at the time: " Stokowski’s was great and noble conducting by any count, certainly giving us the most moving and effective performance of Mahler’s Second I have ever heard… and in such hands, what an overwhelming work it is." This reviewer, for one, would not disagree.

Marc Bridle

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