Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra:
CD premières of their rarest 78 rpm recordings

0 of 5 stars

Beethoven
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Brahms
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Debussy
Nocturnes – Nauges; Fêtes
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Franck
Symphony in D minor
Sousa
El Capitan
The Stars and Stripes Forever
Johann Strauss II
On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Op.314
Tales from the Vienna Woods, Op.325
Richard Strauss
Salome – Dance of the Seven Veils
Weber orch. Berlioz/Stokowski
Invitation to the Dance

Arrangements and orchestrations by Leopold Stokowski of Bach, Boccherini, Brahms, Byrd, Debussy, Frescobaldi, Handel, Haydn, Lully, Palestrina & Vivaldi

“Outline of Themes for the Franck Symphony” – Leopold Stokowski (speaker) & Artur Rodzinski (piano)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski

Recorded between 1927-1940


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: January 2006
CD No: MUSIC & ARTS
CD-1173 [4 CDs]
Duration: 4 hours 43 minutes

This is a fascinating release.

Music & Arts has restored to the catalogue what are, in most instances, Stokowski’s first recordings of works he was to re-visit – in some cases many times – later in life.

One of the interesting features is Stokowski’s consistency of view; over the course of a long career on disc, his basic approach remained similar. Comparing later versions of the same pieces, one can note that despite some sonic and other constraints, these ‘early’ Philadelphia readings have a degree more urgency than those that were to follow.

Each of the four discs (which sell for the price of three) is well-programmed, with (at least) one substantial work alongside shorter pieces, often in the conductor’s arrangements or transcriptions.

The first disc consists entirely of these, with music from the Baroque era and before. Vivaldi, Palestrina, Frescobaldi and Byrd did not, of course, compose music for a full romantic symphony orchestra, and so to those with an ‘authentic’ inclination in this repertoire, Stokowski’s versions will prove – or seem – hopelessly anachronistic. Nevertheless, it needs to be remembered that Stokowski was performing – and recording – this musicwhen it was all but unknown. In any event, as is invariably the case throughout this set, the performances are given with a warm-hearted affection which is compelling in its own terms.

Handel rounds off this CD, concluding with an arrangement of some Water Music movements in Hamilton Harty’s sequence, but in Stokowski’s orchestration. Swagger and suavity characterise this performance.

A further clutch of transcriptions – mainly of Bach – heads up the second disc. The version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor issued here is not the first, which dates from 1927, but a re-make from 1934. It is not as broad – tempo-wise – as some of his later recorded performances were to be. The C minor Passacaglia and Fugue is a darkly-hued reading and is followed by a graceful rendition of Boccherini’s Minuet.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (recorded in 1931) is given with weight and thrust, and the statement of the opening ‘motto-theme’ is delivered at a broader tempo than the remainder of the movement. The second movement is decidedly leisurely, and the use of string portamento here – a feature of orchestral playing at this time – may not be to all tastes. But the finale packs a powerful punch.

Franck and Debussy share disc three which leads off with an “Outline of Themes for the Franck Symphony”, in effect a talk from the conductor with themes played on the piano by Stokowski’s then-assistant Artur Rodzinski, soon to be a distinguished maestro in his own right. Rather quaintly, Stokowski declares that this symphony might be entitled “the symphony of the mystical- and dream-world”, describing Franck as “amystic … playing the organ and dreaming of other worlds”, and one theme is apparently suggestive of “mystical beings … flying through the air”. Whether or not one concurs with this view of César Franck and his symphony, this short talk is an interesting curiosity and was coupled with the symphony on its original release.

Mystical or not, the symphony is given a trenchant performance, from 1927, sounding more than usually Brahmsian in this reading; the famed Philadelphia Orchestra strings at full cry are impressive indeed, even though they were reduced in number – for economic reasons – during these sessions and for others included in this set.

The two purely orchestral movements of Debussy’s Nocturnes make a suitable contrast; though the restrictions of the recording make ‘Nuages’ sound too ‘full-on’, Fêtes is exhilarating, orchestral colouring illuminated with a sure touch. A Stokowski transcription of ‘Clair de lune’ – beguilingly delivered – precedes a voluptuous (though not excessively so) Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

The main work on the final disc is Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, from 1931, never issued in 78 rpm format, the first matrix now lost and replaced here from the 1933 remake. I found this account not so convincing as much of the rest. The somewhat reduced orchestra does sound rather thin, and the second movement is distinctly edgy. Despite some fine moments, the performance as a totality doesn’t seem quite to ‘gel’.

Before it is Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, in a Stokowski arrangement of Berlioz’s orchestration, not altogether tidily played. After the symphony is the first of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, again in a Stokowski orchestration, which I must confess I didn’t care for, with some swooning strings sounding incongruous. Shorn of introductions and repeats both Strauss waltzes, Blue Danube and Tales from the Vienna Woods, are given smoothly and elegantly, though in the latter the slow tempo and some further swooping from the strings will not appeal universally.

The ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Richard Strauss’s “Salome” is another matter. Here, Stokowski revels in the luxuriant orchestration, and the glittering percussion and well-caught celesta belie the age of a recording dating from 1929. This performance quivers with eroticism and reaches a quitehedonistic climax. What a shame there is no Stokowski-led performance of the whole opera!

Conductor and orchestra strut peacock-proud through two Sousa marches which round off a generally absorbing collection, one further enhanced by uncommonly interesting and detailed booklet notes from Richard Freed. And with truly excellent audio restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn, this set can be enthusiastically recommended.

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