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Stransky Conducts Ippolitov-Ivanov

May 1, 2010

Josef Stransky, sinking under the burden of not being Mahler.

New York Philharmonic, Conducted by Josef Stransky
Ippolitow-Iwanow: Cortège du Sardar

Recorded in 1919

Poor old Josef Stransky. All his hard work earned him nothing more than a reputation as a mediocre conductor unworthy of his appointment to the New York Philharmonic. But really, who can follow an act like Gustav Mahler?

“The financial backers of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra will be interested to learn that the German artistic world is filled with astonishment over the engagement of Josef Stransky of Berlin as the successor to the late Gustav Mahler,” wrote the New York Times.

“After much upheaval, search and negotiation, the New York Philharmonic Society…has engaged Josef Stransky… Without disrespect to Mr. Stransky, there are reasons which cause this circumstance to remind one of Aesop’s fable of the mountain in labor which finally brought forth a mouse,” wrote Musical America.

“Succeeding one of the greatest figures in modern music, the late Gustav Mahler, Stransky maintained himself for so long, not so much by his musical abilities as by his social charm and personal cleverness,” wrote D. W. Sinclair.

Practically his whole Wikipedia entry is a catalogue of such slights and outright insults. There were better conductors out there, but was Stransky all that bad? Or did he simply suffer from Not-Mahler syndrome? A pretty good conductor is bound to be a disappointment if he replaces one of the greatest figures in the history of music. Eventually Stransky gave up the conducting business to be an art dealer, so perhaps he wasn’t cut out for music after all. Or perhaps he just wanted to go somewhere where people didn’t spit on him.

At any rate, this recording of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Procession of the Sardar,” the most famous piece from his Caucasian Sketches, is good in its own right, as well as an interesting opportunity to hear a great orchestra under a reviled conductor. For what it’s worth, this recording of what many conductors might dismiss as an inconsequential pops-concert staple is a pretty good one, comparing favorably with the same orchestra’s much later recording under Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps Stransky was best suited for inconsequential pops-concert staples. It’s also interesting to hear an acoustical recording of a piece that normally depends on extremes of volume for its effect, from nearly inaudible to conduct-it-with-your-fists loud. The limited range of acoustical recording forces us to concentrate on the music, in which we may discover some virtues that we missed when we were holding our ears.

Михаил Михайлович Ипполитов-Иванов.

Because of a chip in the edge of the record, the first two measures are missing from this transcription. In this acoustical recording, they were nearly inaudible, as indeed they are even in a live performance.

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