CD: Mahler: Symphony no 6, Berlin PO/ Barbirolli

Also reviewed - Mahler: Symphony no 2, Woodland/ Baker/ BBC Chorus and Choral Soc/ LSO/ Stokowski

The Proms have rarely seen such a great event as the first ever performance in that festival of Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection. At the time - 1963 - it was still a rare work in British concert halls, involving as it does immense forces, including a vast array of brass and massed choruses. William Glock, then BBC controller of music, was determined that his Prom performance would make a special mark. Shrewdly, he chose as conductor Leopold Stokowski, 81, who had become something of a legend.

Though Stokowski, born in London, had made sporadic visits to this country, he was still very much based in the US, his reputation resting on his unique achievement as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 onwards. His reputation here rested largely on his many high-powered recordings, as well as the Disney film Fantasia.

In the event, the performance of Mahler Two exceeded all expectations, for here was a larger-than-life reading of an apocalyptic work. The response of the audience at the end was so prolonged and so enthusiastic that - against the strict Prom rule of the time - Stokowski gave an encore, repeating the final visionary choral sequence. Even critics who dismissed Stokowski as a publicity-seeker were bowled over, recognising that here was music-making of exceptional power and intensity.

On disc at last, this BBC Legends recording confirms that the legends were true. It is only a couple of months since John Barbirolli's rich and powerful reading of this very work with the Berlin Philharmonic appeared on disc, also recorded live. Yet the impact of the Stokowski performance is even greater, with Janet Baker again the dedicated mezzo soloist, this time joined by the fresh-toned Rae Woodland.

Stokowski is more urgent than Barbirolli, lighter in the second movement Andante, more sinister in the Scherzo, leading to a shattering rendering of the Judgment Day finale, with the BBC Chorus, Choral Society and attendant choirs as intense in their hushed singing as in the extrovert power of the climaxes. It makes an overwhelming experience, marred only slightly by the inevitable audience noises.

Meanwhile, Testament has followed up its Barbirolli version of Mahler Two with his 1966 account of the enigmatic Sixth Symphony, in another radio recording, again with the Berlin Philharmonic on superb form. It is a reading markedly faster than Barbirolli's studio recording of the following year, which builds to a full-blooded account of the long finale, bringing out its fantasy as well as its power. The mono sound cannot compare with that of the studio version, but the impact of the whole is comparably great.


Edward Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

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