Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73 Mendelssohn
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski (both recorded 1977)
Symphony No.53 in D (Imperial) Humperdinck
Hänsel und Gretel Prelude Mozart
German Dance in C, K605/3 Schumann
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61 Johann Strauss II
On the Beautiful Blue Danube
Tales from the Vienna Woods
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra (recorded 1949-50)
Tchaikovsky edited Diaghilev
Auroras Wedding (music from The Sleeping Beauty)
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski (all recorded 1976)
CD No: See above Duration: See above Reviewed: May 2002
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Whether one thinks Leopold Stokowski a great conductor or, like me, is more circumspect, theres no doubting his singularity. He could be notorious not only as an interventionist regarding the notated score but in his wholesale changes of orchestration, cuts and re-writing. He could be straight too but he invariably lavished (or indulged) a Technicolor orchestral palette on his repertoire. Magician and master colourist to some, a charlatan or, at best, whimsical to others. Stokowski made music vivid, thrilling audiences with intense, moulded expression and vibrancy.
Cala has been unstinting in its championing of Stokowski. Its Stokie collection to date, in league with The Leopold Stokowski Society, has produced some handsome issues, excellent in terms of transfers and biography. These most recent releases include late Stokowski Auroras Wedding and Encores were made in 1976, the Brahms/Mendelssohn coupling is from 1977; Stokowski died in 1977 aged 95.
Anyone new to Stokowski might wonder why neither orchestra here is an established one. It should be noted therefore that Stokowski had a long tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-38) and, later, was conductor of the Houston Symphony; he was also a regular guest with the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestras. The orchestras on these CDs are made up of hand-picked musicians brought together for recording purposes.
In the Brahms and Mendelssohn symphonies one does register the odd dropped stitch or some less than unanimous ensemble. In return theres much spontaneity and many felicitous touches of orchestral blend and emphasis; for example the rugged double basses in the first movement of the Italian, itself perfectly paced poised and articulate with some ear-tweaking contrasts of dynamic. Organic growth is enhanced by what sounds like movement-long takes with minimal editing; therefore real performances are preserved. The Italian is fresh, phrased with affection and without indulgence, and for all Stokowskis nonagenarian status theres plenty of vitality and control; the pin-point rhythmic élan and measured tempo of the saltarello Finale give particular delight.
Stokie observes the first movement repeats in both symphonies very important ones in my opinion. The Brahms is beautifully played, not least by the silky-smooth strings, and flows nicely too, yet Stokowski seems more interested in producing a specifically concentrated singing string sound. This isnt a Brahms 2 to wallow in, the forward-moving tempi do not allow that, yet nagging away is the feeling that Stokowski rarely penetrates into the core of music essentially Classical with Romantic leanings. This Brahms, if cut from too similar-sounding cloth, isnt superficial; rather it is not skin-deep enough despite some beguiling detail and heartfelt phrasing, albeit a reading to return to, especially the unhurried, purposeful Finale if not the awkward turn into the finishing measures (9 09-9 13).
Talking of ungainly codas, Stokowski makes a meal of the closing bars of Schumanns first movement an unconvincing rallentando (from 10 07) and a rushed-rubato crusade through the final six chords. Yet this 1950 recording preserves a rather wonderful interpretation, rising to perfectly wonderful in the sublime Adagio espressivo where the American musicians (including some great names from the New York Philharmonic) really soar the music, Stokowski shaping the movement as an entity.
Otherwise, although one can nit-pick over a few mannerisms, this is a glorious rendition that, if a little portentous come the close, is alive to the musics volatility, fantasy and profundity. Stokowski has the measure of the design, filigree detail and expressive intertwining that makes Schumann his wonderful self. Schumanns Second is one of the pinnacles of nineteenth-century symphonism; for the most part Stokowski does it proud in this ample and driven traversal, one that solves Schumanns supposedly difficult writing for the most eloquent purposes.
Listeners may find sudden changes of tempo discursive, and eyebrows could be raised at Stokowskis retarding way with the first Trio (the second one is given with winning tenderness). The points and shifts of the Scherzo itself are nicely observed and Stokie the potential showman avoids an obvious speeding-up (well, nearly) for its final seconds (from 6 37) if not a re-write for the violins (6 53-6 57).
Also on this CD is an appropriately regal account of the Haydn (1949), full-toned and shapely, the Finale especially convincing at a tempo well under the Presto marking speed for its own sake is a real turn-off; better to appreciate shape and articulacy. (Haydn 53 has alternative last movements Stokowski plays one considered spurious; to my mind, believing Haydn to be among the supreme composers, it is authentically imaginative and meaningful.)
This historic Stokie issue has been expertly transferred, the sound is full and detailed, if a little variable, with little or no surface crackle or hiss, nor any degeneration of the actual music. Of the remaining items (all 1949), the Mozart dance could be more insouciant and the two Strauss waltzes are unidiomatic (shall we say!). Thankfully abridged to four minutes apiece (i.e. for 78rpm sides), tempo fluctuations are as numerous as phrasal distortions; the extra side drum strokes in Blue Danube and a pitch-queasy Vienna Woods, with an electronic-sounding zither that makes toe-curling listening, give little pleasure. Theres compensation in the Hänsel prelude, a mellifluous version magically suggestive and warmly atmospheric with just a hint of danger within, the composers attraction to Wagner evident in allusions to Die Walküres Magic Fire Music and Parsifal.
Stokowski will perhaps be most remembered for leading spectacular orchestral scores and party-piece encores, the latter a feature of his concerts, perhaps his orchestration of a piano piece or one of his famous Bach transcriptions.
The final CD combines the spectacle of Tchaikovsky with some Stokowski-generated trinkets. One of the problems with Auroras Wedding choreographer Diaghilevs selection from Tchaikovskys The Sleeping Beauty is the recording. Unlike Brahms and Mendelssohn, both enjoying excellent Abbey Road Studio One reproduction, poor old Aurora loses out to the reverberation of Londons West Ham Central Mission. This amount of space doesnt do the music any favours. The sound, while full and powerful, is also remote, glossy and over-bright. Its as much the acoustic as Stokowski that allows certain instruments to be timbrally teeth-cringing (harp scales for instance). While theres no denying the voltage and charisma of Stokowskis concept, skilfully played, its also wearing; and the intrinsically reserved aspect of Tchaikovskys music is lost to such overblown treatment. Some changes to Tchaikovksys scoring are noted.
I am grateful to Edward Johnson, Stokowski-expert and the writer of the booklets excellent notes, for informing me that only one track of the original encore LP is missing here. It, from Rimsky-Korsakovs Ivan the Terrible, is on Sony SBK 62647, a collection of Russian music otherwise conducted by Eugene Ormandy, Stokowskis successor in Philadelphia.
Of these transcription-encores (sounding less blowsy in the Mission), Debussys piano music Clair de lune (Suite Bergamasque) and La soirée dans Grenade (Estampes) is given poetic (sometimes soupy) and gaudy treatment in equal measure. The Spanish theme continues in an atmospheric rendering of Albénizs Fête-Dieu à Seville (Iberia), its bombast spilling into Shostakovichs E flat minor Prelude (from Op.34) with blaring brass and doom-laden gong strokes. Novaceks Perpetuum Mobile is quite arresting in a macabre way, while Rimskys Bumble-Bee buzzes around in plenty of aural spread! Tchaikovskys Humoresque proves pretty and deftly instrumented, and Chopins B flat minor Mazurka and D minor Prelude (the last of the Op.28 set) work well, even the Mazurkas muted trumpet; trilling brass in the Prelude certainly has a tingle factor.
This last CD may well prove to be the one that collectors want most. I suggest that the Haydn, Humperdinck, Mendelssohn and Schumann items are equally desirable.