Pioneering Mahler recordings from Rotterdam

Gramophone21st Sep 2010
Eduard Flipse's historically significant Mahler recordingsEduard Flipse's historically significant Mahler recordings

The name of Eduard Flipse(1896-1973) is almost forgotten, at least outside the city of Rotterdam, where he first helped to build the City’s musical life in the 1930s, then set about rebuilding it in the difficult years after World War 2. As Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (previously the Symphonic Band) between 1930 and 1962 he made few recordings, but two of them have just been reissued by the Orchestra itself and they are more historically significant then many listeners may realise.

Mahler famously predicted ‘my time will come’ and ultimately it was the advent of stereophonic recording that proved him right. The dynamic range that became available for the domestic market as the mainstream recording labels adopted stereo in the late 1950s transformed both the LP market and public taste. Nonetheless, a tiny handful of ambitious monophonic recordings of Mahler’s symphonic works had been made for commercial release.

Most are well known. Bruno Walter recorded the first, fourth and fifth symphonies in New York, Das Lied von der Erde twice in Vienna and, in 1938, set down his legendary account of Symphony No 9 as the dark days of Anschluss approached. The relatively short and accessible symphonies No 1 and No 4 were by far the most oft-recorded in that era, with performances set down by the likes of Mitropoulos, Kubelik, Scherchen, Kletzki, Eduard van Beinum and Japanese conductor Hidemaro Konoye. There are also remarkable pre-LP performances of the Symphony No 2 by Oskar Fried and Eugene Ormandy and a 1951 LP account from Otto Klemperer.

Another early Mahler advocate, Charles Adler, went to post-war Vienna to set down readings of the Third and Sixth symphonies, plus parts of the unfinished Symphony No 10. That was about it, though numerous radio recordings have found their way onto the market. Or so even diehard Mahler fans may have believed.

Thanks very largely to the early advocacy of Mengelberg, the Mahler tradition has always been strong in Holland and it was there in the 1950s that Philips engineers made the second-ever commercial recording of Mahler’s Symphony No 6 and also the very first commercial recording of Symphony No 8, both conducted by Flipse and featuring the Rotterdam Philharmonic, augmented in the latter instance by players from the new Brabant Orchestra, a thousand-strong choir (a combination of 11 Rotterdam ensembles) and a host of soloists.

The Eighth was recorded at live performances in July 1954, in a huge, hangar-like exhibition and conference centre in Rotterdam called Ahoy! It is hard to imagine any performance coming closer to recreating the sole, unqualified triumph that Mahler enjoyed as a composer-conductor, in a similar space in Munich on September 12, 1910. I have long cherished original LPs of this performance, but this new remastering, by Mark Obert-Thorn, is revelatory. ‘It is not difficult to impress with that many,’ Flipse told his performers, ‘nor to overwhelm, but it is hard to move people’s emotions’. He did; and he still does.

The Symphony No 6 was recorded a year later, at a Holland Festival concert in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The Philips engineers already knew their way around that famous acoustic and it shows. The Rotterdam Philharmonic, again with colleagues from Brabant offering supplementary support, makes another notable contribution to the recorded Mahler canon.

I shan’t be dumping my old LPs of these performances any time soon, but that is for reasons of nostalgia. These are classic transfers of classic recordings. Anyone with an interest in the recorded history of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler owes a great debt to today’s Rotterdam Philharmonic, for honouring its own heritage in this fashion. The first copy of this handsome 3-CD set was proudly presented to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the opening day of the 2010 Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival. The CDs are available from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra via its website.

Michael McManus

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