Newly issued by United Classics, this release demands your attention…or it would, were the performance less frequently thrown around. I've heard great things about this performance, and it's been issued on Music & Arts, Archipel 108, and in the lavish New York Philharmonic Mahler box. Assuming you still don't have it, but still want it (I found myself in this camp), here it is again. In 2003, Robert Stumpf found the Archipel issue superior to the New York box version, while AllMusic praised the Music and Arts issue. Confused yet? Me too.
All issues of repackaging aside, this really is a very interesting performance. Sure, it's basically a pirated tape, and nothing United Classics can do can make a pirated tape from 1950 anything special. But there is a sense of occasion and atmosphere that is sorely lacking from better known Mahler 8s. And the sound is not bad, save for some fade-out here and there that probably can't be corrected at this point, if ever it could. Stokowski has some huge forces at his command, and they play and sing extremely well for the most part. The middle of the second half sounds a bit tired, but this was 1950. Mahler was not yet a household name, even in New York. Stokowski stays remarkably faithful to the score, and while certainly full of individual touches, nothing is perverse or crazy.
Certainly, if you don't have one of the previous issues and care about this work, this is an important acquisition. If you do own one of the prior issues, I don't see how this release justifies another purchase. If I sound uncertain, I suppose it's because for such an important document of Stokowski and the Philharmonic, it hasn't been treated as such. And that's a shame.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman