Leopold Stokowski – Flawed Genius Or Misjudged Charlatan?

0 of 5 stars

Works include
Bach orch. Stokowski
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor)
Symphony No.9 in E minor (From the New World)
The Carnival of the Animals
Poem of Ecstasy
Prometheus – The Poem of Fire
Death and Transfiguration
The Nutcracker – Suite

Various artists with The Philadelphia Orchestra and All-American Youth Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski (recorded 1926-41)

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: May 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 2986-2989 (4 CDs)

Very recently, a close musical colleague voiced his opinion across the coffee table that he was fed up with Leopold Stokowski because of the way he tampered with music. He regarded him as the typical showman who constantly touted his over-hyped image via the rostrum to orchestral players who responded to his every wish and command. Audiences went into the same kind of delirium that Manchester United supporters now show every time David Beckham plants one of his long-range free kicks into the back of the net. ’Stokie’ could do no wrong, and when he followed up the main programme with his customary “Bach!” encore – barked out in his clever mix of Polish-Russian-American as an instruction to massed musical forces – embarrassed, screaming ladies either broke into tears or rushed to the nearest powder-room.

The conductor’s sex appeal was still in evidence in his late ’ 80s despite the sagging cheeks and bedraggled hair line – a far cry from the younger, very handsome and well-groomed idol that charmed Philadelphia patronesses, Greta Garbo and Gloria Vanderbilt during the first half of the last century, or those budding film buffs with better musical tastes and tendencies who flocked to “100 Men and a Girl”, “Fantasia” and “Carnegie Hall”.

Stokowski’s importance as a musical educator is undisputed, with many people’s horizons widened by his unstinting efforts to persuade them to listen to and love the sounds of the orchestra in the repertoire he favoured. I also envisaged him as a pre-Leonard Bernstein with greater platform charisma but with strong tendencies to cut, rewrite or re-score the basic repertoire whenever he felt it ’improved’ the music’s message.

This may have distressed players, but they never discussed it widely outside the concert hall or recording studio. Those shapely hands and fingers conveyed every colour, shading, dramatic effect and rhythmic nuance known to man, and the “Stokowski Sound” became, and remained, unique. As actor Frank McHugh stated: There’s only one Stokowski. Along with Toscanini and Mengelberg he belonged to the age of the martinet, yet history still elevates his shining virtues and achievements, causing the less desirable elements – true also of certain conductors today – to stay firmly in the background.”

Andante’s set of 4 CDs, with notes and illustrations, concentrates primarily on the Philadelphia period, a reminder of the 1948 visit of the orchestra when Harold Fielding promoted a two-week visit at London’s Harringay Arena, plus a Royal Albert Hall closing concert. I wasn’t aware, then, of the scope of Stokowski’s efforts to introduce and première new works. A Royal Philharmonic Orchestra five-concert series in the 50s, at the invitation of Beecham, filled in several gaps – Carl Ruggles’s Organum (the series-starter) together with music by European composers and the standard classics. I wonder why out-of-copyright Philadelphia recordings of Shostakovich Symphonies 1 and 5 or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Petrushka are not included here. Tim Page’s notes include first performance information.

The short, mind-blowing Shostakovich Prelude (E flat minor, Op.34/14) in Stokowski’s orchestration, and Scriabin’s romantic-part-impressionist Poem of Ecstasy are both acceptable, but a voluptuous Strauss Death and Transfiguration (All-American Symphony Orchestra) suggests choirs of angels embracing a gigantic effigy of Christ the Saviour in super-cinemascope. None of these items fulfils the width and vision of Stokowski the challenging innovator and life-long supporter of the twentieth-century’s all-important composers. I think of works by Ives, Cowell, Harrison, Bloch, Respighi and many others – sometime available on CD and now hard to acquire.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade makes a good starting choice in this survey of Philadelphia recordings. This 1934 version – the first of several – shows quite clearly the conductor’s idiomatic treatment of phrasing: quicker entry figures, slowing during replies. String portamenti was still very much in evidence, which brings a kind of naïve charm to the interpretation, also an excuse for Stokowski to indulge in a number of romantic ’lingerings’ (aptly described by Jed Distler in his essay as “more wiggle room”). Basically, every key-change is subjected to some kind of expansive treatment, while the climactic passages at the close of the second movement and during the ’shipwreck’ episode of the last can be likened to marathon runners awaiting the starting flag, then gradually generating into enormous surges of speed and effort by which stage the race for supremacy is complete. This is typical of Stokowski’s theatrical approach – certainly not out of place here, the comfortably recessed sound certainly preferable to the mid-50s Philharmonia recording reissued on Testament, which I think perfectly horrible with its overblown levels distorting a balanced image of a symphony orchestra. By that time, Stokowski was supervising the engineering of his recordings, and it became a matter of pure chance that some made during the 1960s-80s were more musical-sounding than others.

Sound reproduction is often a matter of individual choice and argument, and Stokowski had his own ideas, rules and challenges that accepted no outside criticism. The period between 1927 and 1941, as represented here, is pretty unique because it reflects some of the finest recordings of their time. Borodin’s excerpted Prince Igor, besides the familiar ’Dance of the Young Maidens’ and’Polovtsian Dances’, contains the rarely heard ’Prelude’ (not to be confused with Glazunov’s conflated ’Overture’). It is interesting to compare Tchaikovsky’s desolate-sounding Solitude (Op.73/6) with Shostakovich’s sombre-cum-frenetic Prelude – both Stokowski transcriptions, each exactingly prophetic in meaning and setting. Here we witness the genius of the conductor-imagemaker, and his amazing pictorial understanding with musical miniatures as a mass communicator. Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela and Valse triste, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, The Poem of Fire (the latter with pianist Sylvan Levin and the Curtis Institute of Music Chorus) also tell us as much about their interpreter’s knowledge of compositional styles and national characteristics, while Doppler’s orchestration of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 – recorded 1936 and the highlight of “100 Men and a Girl” – became a top seller.

Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals (with skilled pianists Olga Barabini and Mary Binney Montgomery, and cellist Willem van den Burg) is a rarer Stokowski recording of 1929 vintage, and features some glorious wind playing and sterling work by the strings. Selections from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne – five numbers recorded the same year – show the same penchant for orchestral colours. Even earlier, 1926, is the suite from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, hardly suitable for dancers like later versions by Fistoulari and Dorati, but a showcase of cameo delights, superbly performed throughout. Stokowski’s Bach orchestrations, however, are what everyone remembers him by. Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a masterstroke of glorious counterpoint and a highpoint in film-history that showed Disney’s Mickey Mouse being lectured on various instrumental combinations with accompanying rhythmic vibrations. The updated guise of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582) in orchestral splendour might have been envisaged during the maestro’s earlier career as organist to St James’s Church, Piccadilly – still an essential location in London’s music-making.

Which leaves Dvorak’s ’From the New World’ symphony (recorded 1934), a version which competed with several others including Toscanini’s block-busting effort from the 1950s. Stokowski emphasises both the Czech and American ingredients of this world-favourite, and if I prefer his 1934 recording to the later version, this is due to the more open treatment of themes and the marvellously assured Philadelphia playing throughout.

This is an enjoyable compendium of superbly transferred recordings by an old master. I hope for a second volume, one that might explore a wider choice of Stokowski’s versatility.

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