Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1905)* [76:08]
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1910) [81:49]: Part I [25:46]
Symphony No. 8: Part II [56:03]
Annelies Kupper (soprano I – Magna Peccatrix)
Hilde Zadek (soprano II – Una Poenitentium)
Corry Bijster (soprano III – Mater Gloriosa)
Annie Hermes (contralto I – Mulier Samaritana)
Lore Fischer (contralto II – Maria Aegyptiaca)
Annie Woud (contralto III)
Lorenz Fehenberger (tenor I – Doctor Marianus)
Frans Vroons (tenor II)
Herman Schey (baritone I – Pater Ecstaticus)
David Hollestelle (baritone II)
Gottlob Frick (bass - Pater Profundus)
Piet van den Kerkhoff (organ)
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; The Brabant Orchestra/Eduard Flipse
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 25 June 1955*; Ahoy’, Rotterdam 3 July 1954. Mono. ADD.
German texts with Dutch and English translations included
ROTTERDAM PHILHARMONIC VINTAGE RECORDINGS no number [3 CDs: 76:08 + 25:46 + 56: 03]
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 time.
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 humour.
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 Sixth.
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.
Pioneering versions of two Mahler symphonies that should be sought out by all serious Mahler collectors.