Throughout the twentieth century Holland was the European country
where, perhaps more than any other, the music of Mahler was
appreciated and championed. The role of the Royal Concertgebouw
Orchestra is well known: its principal conductors, including
van Beinum, Chailly and, especially, Haitink and Mengelberg
did a great deal to advance Mahler's music both through their
own performances and through inviting guest conductors who would
play the scores. However, this set shows that the championing
of Mahler was not confined to Amsterdam.
The Dutch conductor, Eduard Flipse (1896-1973), began his association
with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 1926. In 1930 he was appointed
its chief conductor and he held that post until 1962 - he also
served as chief conductor of the Antwerp Philharmonic from 1961-1970.
Though the Rotterdam Orchestra existed prior to his arrival
on the scene he was primarily responsible for building it into
a significant ensemble. In 1954 he led it in a remarkable enterprise,
namely a performance of Mahler's vast Eighth Symphony to mark
the 125th anniversary of the Society for the Promotion
of Music in Rotterdam.
The ambitious scale of this project is related in the most interesting
booklet notes and is worth summarising. The project was mounted
with financial support from the city of Rotterdam and from Philips,
whose support was conditional upon the performance being recorded
at the Holland Festival. There was no suitable concert hall
in Rotterdam at the time so the decision was taken to give the
concert at an industrial exhibition hall, Ahoy' (apparently,
the apostrophe was a remnant of the original exclamation mark).
A huge logistical effort was required to make the venue fit
for purpose, including the building and installation of a purpose-built
organ, which a Leiden firm built free of charge! But despite
all the problems that the venue presented - not least in terms
of acoustics - it had the advantage of being sufficiently large
to accommodate the performers and also a substantial audience.
In fact, the capacity was 8,500 but so great was the demand
for tickets that not only was the concert itself sold out but
there was also a capacity audience for two preceding rehearsals;
so some 25,000 people heard Flipse conduct the symphony.
The Rotterdam orchestra was not sufficiently large to perform
the Mahler so the ranks were swelled by members of The Brabant
Orchestra. Flipse also had to assemble a large chorus so in
addition to the city's Toonkunst Choir he recruited another
ten choirs, including children's choirs, and, indeed, the booklet
refers to a 'thousand-strong' choir. I mention all this because
I think it's worth recording the sheer scale of the project.
Just as important, however, is the fact that this was clearly
a 'community' performance and I don't say that in any belittling
or patronising sense. On the contrary, I think that the sense
of a great number of local musicians, most of them amateur,
coming together in an ambitious large-scale project such as
this is a major element in the performance that we hear.
I was particularly struck by the sheer fervour of the
music-making. Clearly, there's not the precision that you get
in studio performances such as Solti's or indeed in Rattle's
live account -; performance standards have risen over the last
fifty years. And this is not a 'live' recording that has been
patched together from several performances. On the contrary.
The musicians had been rehearsing this music for a long time
- possibly for months in the case of the choirs - and this was
the one-off performance towards which they'd been striving.
That's just what it sounds like.
I'm not going to discuss the performance in detail; this isn't
that kind of review. But right from the very first entry of
the massed choirs, their enthusiasm and commitment to the cause
is palpable. And this isn't just reflected in the attack during
the louder passages. The quieter stretches of the work are done
well also - towards the end of Part II when the choirs sing
'Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis' (CD 2, 0:57)
the singing is commendably hushed - but when they repeat the
same words fortissimo shortly afterwards (4:01) the sound
of the massed voices is thrilling. Sometimes they are exposed
by the difficulties of the music and one remembers that this
is probably the most difficult music that many of them had ever
performed - they're sometimes less than 100% precise at the
opening of Part II, for example. However, all in all the choral
contribution is highly commendable.
I must make special mention of the contribution of the children's
choir. Tony Duggan memorably described them, in his survey
of recordings of this symphony as 'like a parliament of street
urchins straight out of Fagin's kitchen'. That's a marvellous
turn of phrase and it aptly describes the confidence, spirit
and clarity of the singing.
Generally the solo team does well. I'm not sure why more than
eight soloists were involved - perhaps some singers took part
in Part I only in order to lessen the demands on their respective
colleagues. Some of Mahler's solo parts are cruelly taxing -
the tenor role of Doctor Marianus is particularly stretching
- but the they cope well.
The combined orchestras give a very good account of themselves.
There are occasional fluffs, as one might expect in a live performance
of such a complex and demanding score, but for the most part
the playing is accurate. Inevitably quite an amount of inner
detail is lost - capturing this huge ensemble must have presented
unprecedented challenges to the Philips engineers - but one
can still register that the musicians are doing a fine job.
Flipse's handing of the immense score is impressive. There were
occasions when I felt that his tempi were a little cautious
but that may well have been a case of a pragmatic - and sensible
- decision, taking into account the constraints of the venue
and the fact that he was directing an ensemble including a large
number of amateurs, albeit that it's quite clear that everyone
taking part had been scrupulously prepared. Overall, he most
certainly has the measure of the score and he pays careful attention
to detail yet also manages to convey the sweep of the work -
the big picture. I found his interpretation very convincing.
The first time I listened I wrote in my notes at the end 'this
performance mattered to those involved'; and I haven't
changed that view. I referred earlier to the sense of a 'community'
performance; for me, that makes it a moving experience. There's
no applause at the end but I bet that the performers received
an ovation, which would have been fully justified. One can only
imagine the sense of exhilaration, for the chorus in particular,
at having pulled off something so memorable in their musical
experiences to date. This may not be a perfect performance,
nor is the recorded sound 'state of the art' but if you listen
to this reading of Mahler's Eighth I think you'll be caught
up, as I was, by the sheer sense of occasion. You'll be impressed
by the scale of the achievement.
Almost a year later to the day, Flipse and his orchestra, again
reinforced by members of The Brabant Orchestra, were in the
Concertgebouw to play Mahler's Sixth and once again the Philips
engineers were on hand to capture the performance for posterity.
Sonically, this is a very different experience. Working in the
much more sympathetic conditions and acoustic of Amsterdam's
great hall and with smaller forces, the engineers did an excellent
job and the recorded sound is very satisfactory indeed for its
Flipse gives another very impressive performance. He doesn't
make the exposition repeat in the first movement - to my regret
- but he adopts a very sensible tempo for the main material
of the movement, which seems to me to work very well. He plays
the Andante second. Normally I prefer to hear the scherzo at
this point but I must say that Flipse manages better than any
other conductor I can recall, to convince me that the slow movement
works better when one hears it immediately after the rigours
of the first movement. Again, Flipse's tempi in the andante
are shrewdly chosen. In the scherzo he imparts just the right
amount of bite to the music, bringing out the element of sardonic
The vast finale is a huge test for the players and for the conductor.
In the opening minutes I wondered if Flipse's tempi were a bit
too cautious and, perhaps as a result, the playing showed a
few signs of tiredness. However, thereafter the pacing is much
better and the playing takes on a new lease of life in a powerfully
projected and vigorous account of this dramatic movement. The
hammer-blows are a bit of a disappointment - it doesn't sound
as if Flipse uses anything other than conventional percussion
instruments. The booklet notes indicate that he observed the
third blow but you wouldn't really notice. However, despite
this the finale is very impressive. The playing throughout the
symphony is very good, even if it's not infallible, indicating
that once again Flipse had prepared the players very thoroughly.
I'd rate this as a not inconsiderable performance of Mahler's
Both of these recordings were pioneering versions. Indeed, I
think that the recording of the Eighth may have been the first
ever and that of the Sixth was certainly one of the very first
in the field. Since then performances and recordings of Mahler
symphonies have become almost commonplace. In addition, standards
of playing have risen significantly. However, these Flipse performances
were significant achievements at the time and in many ways they
retain that status. I haven't heard previous incarnations of
these recordings but I doubt that anyone will have bettered
the results achieved here by Mark Obert-Thorn. This set should
be sought out by all serious Mahler collectors.
Correspondence received (July 2013)
This email has been a long time coming, perhaps even as long
as nearly 60 years!
In 1954 my mother was a young woman of 24 years when she sang
as a soprano in one of Piet van den Kerkhoffs choirs in
Rotterdam The Netherlands, that participated in the performance
of Mahlers Symphony no 8, which was reviewed by John Quinn.
Mum gave up singing for a while whilst her children were young,
but when we became teenagers, she joined the local choir and
started singing again. My mother is a quiet sort of a person,
who is not given to talking about herself much. But she did
always speak of her early singing days with great fondness and
the Mahler performance was at times mentioned, although not
in great detail.
About 15 years ago I myself joined a choir in Perth and found
myself talking about music, singing and performances with my
mum and connecting with her in a way that was new and very enjoyable.
A passion we both shared! Slowly the anecdotes and memories
of many years surfaced with a lot more detail, and this time
I found myself asking questions, trying to imagine what it must
have been like for her all those years ago. She spoke so often
of that memorable Mahler performance, where all the choristers
had received a booklet and for each rehearsal they received
a stamp. If theyd missed out on 2 stamps, they were not
allowed to sing in the performance! She also mentioned that
the concert had been recorded, but the price of the LPs
was too much for her and shed not been able to buy them.
Later, during one of my visits home, she produced the newspaper
clippings she had kept all those years and I began to understand
the scale of the work a bit better. This had been no ordinary
performance, that much I was really beginning to understand.
It was lovely to see her so animated, reliving the whole experience.
I found it such a shame that she had never been able to listen
to the recording, but didnt really think about it much,
until during one of our recent conversations the subject of
the Mahler concert came up again. Mum is nearly
83 and likes to repeat old stories a bit! So I listened to her
talking about Piet van den Kerkhoff and his methods of getting
the sopranos to hit their high notes and other highlights
of the preparation for the Mahler concert. That conversation
really sparked my interest in this performance and I jumped
on the internet to see if I could learn anything about Piet
van den Kerkhoff, the conductor she respected so very much.
To my utter delight it wasnt long before I came across
John Quinns review of Mums concert. Here it was,
in black and white! The story of Mums long lost concert
brought to life in all its glory, with so much information,
so many extra pieces to fit into the picture, Johns review
brought the entire concert to life for me and it moved me to
His review of the choral performance seems to be utterly and
amazingly accurate. The choristers did indeed rehearse for months
and months, they lived for nothing but their rehearsals and
the stamps in their booklets! Mums choir under the guidance
of Piet van den Kerkhoff was apparently extremely well prepared
(better than the others she always proudly tells me!). John
writes that in his notes he wrote that this performance mattered
to those involved, and Im not sure if he realises quite
how correct he was when he wrote that. In the conversations
we had following the discovery of Johns review Mum stated
categorically that that concert had been the highlight of her
life!!! I suspect she is not the only participant who feels
that way right up to this present day!
I wanted to say a heartfelt thank you to John Quinn for the
research he did and his wonderful review which also put me on
the trail of the long lost recording. I was delighted to discover
the concert has been burned onto a CD by the Rotterdam Philharmonic
Orchestra, and as its mums birthday next week there
will be no prizes for guessing what shes getting for her
birthday this year (see photo)!
In your review you speculated on the performers receiving an
ovation at the conclusion of the concert? Correct, .. again.
I asked mum how they felt at the end when it was over, it must
have been so huge. And she said - och child, they just clapped
and clapped and they wouldn't stop. It lasted for a full 20
minutes! We didn't know what to do. It was amazing!
Mum had a very lovely birthday this week. She has been listening
to the CDs and has thoroughly enjoyed reliving the performance.
She told me she had goose bumps when she first heard the opening
again and so many memories then surfaced that she found it hard
to sleep that night!
The whole experience has come to life again for her, its
lovely. One of her most vivid memories is of the dress rehearsals
when everyone came together for the first time. They were all
astonished that the children could completely out-sing the combined
forces of all the adults! She still chuckles at that. I remember
you made a mention of them in your review as well. Those children
must be in their 60s and 70s now, I wonder how they
remember the concert?
Its certainly been wonderful for me to experience it
through your review, which in turn has helped me to build a
stronger connection with my mum. Thank you once again for that.
Marjan van Gulik