Leopold Stokowski

Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat

  • AllMusic Rating
    8
  • User Ratings (0)
  • Your Rating

AllMusic Review by

When the New York Philharmonic fired conductor Artur Rodzinski in 1946, Leopold Stokowski saw an opportunity -- he had long desired the post of principal conductor in New York and went to work trying to obtain it. From 1947 to 1950, Stokowski made himself available to New York on an on-call basis, conducting children's concerts, fill in concerts for other conductors, anything that New York would assign to him, remaining visible until the long process of choosing a music director was finished. Alas, it became clear by early 1950 that Stokowski was not going to be New York's choice for the position, awarded instead to Dimitri Mitropoulos. To vindicate his artistry and go out with a bang, Stokowski played his "ace in the hole" through programming Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in E flat, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand," which in 1950 had never been heard in New York. Stokowski had first conducted it in 1916 in Philadelphia and, among conductors in America in 1950, probably only he and Bruno Walter were familiar with the work, and it was not in Walter's repertoire. The concert, held on April 9, 1950, was a heavily promoted, sold-out event that was a smashing success and helped increase the profile of a conductor whose stock, as far as the public was concerned, was already incredibly high.

This concert was the source of one of the earliest "bootleg" classical recordings ever distributed to the public, and its entrance into the market was nearly instantaneous; the morning after the concert the record shops on Radio Row were selling a recording of the concert pressed on a set of six 8" flexidiscs that contained the entire 78-minute performance. It remains the earliest surviving complete recorded performance of the Mahler Eighth, enjoying a long history on non-mainstream issues. The legit Music & Arts version under consideration here is likely the best option for Stokowski's Mahler Eighth, outside of the limited-edition version issued on NYP's own label as part of its 12-disc collection The Mahler Broasdcasts.

Although the entire field of classical recordings of such vintage is regarded as "historical," this particular concert was in itself an important event. Stokowski was in his element in dealing with big works with outside forces; the only Mahler symphonies he conducted were the Eighth and the Second, the "Resurrection." Although at times it is hard to tell who is singing what in the boxy and somewhat distant recording, the voice of the late soprano Martha Lipton is one detail that stands out. The use of tape for recording in 1950 was still in its infancy and the sound quality of the source is somewhat below the standard even from that time. Music & Arts has done its best to make this listenable; the orchestra, soloists, and chorus are clearly audible, albeit within a limited audio spectrum, and there is no tape hiss. It certainly helps to know the work already, not a difficult task, as since 1950 the Mahler Eighth has become a standard repertory item that is performed with considerable frequency and there are numerous recordings of it available.

Stokowski enthusiasts should know this performance, as it is essential to his legend. To hardcore fans of Mahler, the very idea of listening to a Mahler symphony as conducted by Stokowski might seem preposterous, but they might find it surprising what a respectful and well-shaped realization this is of the Eighth.

blue highlight denotes track pick