Stokie’s Scheherazade

0 of 5 stars

Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35
Marche Slave, Op.31

London Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski

Rimsky-Korsakov recorded 22 September 1964 in Kingsway Hall, London; Tchaikovsky recorded live on 15 June 1972 in the Royal Albert Hall, London

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: November 2003
Duration: 79 minutes

This, the fourth of Stokowski’s complete recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite, of six (one never issued), is also the first of a number of LPs which the conductor made for Decca using the then comparatively recent “Phase 4 Stereo” technique.

In essence, this was the use of close and multiple microphone placement (20 were used for Scheherazade) and pronounced stereo separation. Indeed, at the start of the absorbing rehearsal extracts included on this Cala release, the maestro can be heard organising the seating of the woodwind players, in consultation with Tony D’Amato, the recording director (sic).

Stokowski was fascinated with technology and its possibilities for the dissemination of recorded music, as his appearances in such series as Capitol’s “Full Dimensional Sound” and RCA’s “Living Stereo” testify. “Phase 4” was a comparatively short-lived idea and, truth to tell, the sound of this particular recording does not stand up well, nearly forty years on.

It is almost certain that the unyielding medium of the compact disc magnifies the somewhat harsh quality of the original. The overall sound picture is contrived, and a natural perspective is not achieved nor, in all likelihood, was this striven for. Instead, solo instruments loom in and out of focus, as do the various sections of the orchestra – rather like a camera with an overactive zoom lens.

It follows, then, that the sound of the full orchestra is constricted and, at times, verges on the distorted. It is an acquired taste – to say the least.

The same might be said of Stokowski’s interpretation. He evidently cared deeply for the score, and its colours and textures clearly appealed to him. But in his ardent desire to communicate his feelings for the music, his disregarding of aspects of the letter of the score becomes problematic.

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that nearly every bar is subject to conductorial intervention, it does not overstate the case to point out that, virtually phrase by phrase, Stokowski intervenes – not necessarily to the benefit of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music as the composer conceived it. Couple this with the artificial recorded sound, and the end result might be kindly described as a curiosity.

Two areas where this performance fails to convince are those of tempo and dynamics. There are constant shifts of the basic pulse – usually drawing back at the end of phrases – and when this is markedly slower than that which the composer directs (such as that chosen for the third movement), the end result is pure mannerism, if not, in this particular instance, verging on tedium. Rimsky-Korsakov’s dynamic markings are constantly ’adjusted’, with many answering phrases subjected to a hushed ’echo’ effect, contrary to what the composer has written or implied.

Stokowski is, perhaps not surprisingly, not beyond altering the orchestration at times, with additional harp glissandos and supplementary percussion (most bizarrely, the addition of a xylophone in the second movement) being the most obvious elements.

To be sure, the sweep of the majestic sea-music in the outer movements is something magnificent, although in other places where opulence is called for, the heavy-handed and sudden retards are not persuasive and are, in any event, at odds with the score.

Of course, there are things to admire. The solo wind playing – bassoon and oboe in particular – is superb, as are Erich Gruenberg’s winsome and persuasive violin solos, and the cut and thrust of the more vigorous passages – such as the main body of the finale – is thoroughly enthralling.

But one has to hear these felicities through an aural haze and, ultimately, if one wants to hear Stokowski’s Scheherazade, then there are four others on disc (two of them on Cala) to turn to. Aged 93, the conductor’s final thoughts on the work are preserved in a 1975 RCA recording, with the Royal Philharmonic (by coincidence, Gruenberg is the violinist on that version too).

This is placed in a much more natural acoustic and, perhaps in the main due to this, the performance sounds much more convincing. Even so, Stokowski’s interpretation of this work remains something peculiarly personal. For a more faithful rendering of the score, one would need to turn elsewhere – Kondrashin (Philips), perhaps. [Or the new Kees Bakels’s account on BIS: Ed.]

So is this present Cala release something that may be safely set aside and only recommended to die-hard Stokowski followers?Possibly, but what remains on the disc makes it eminently worthwhile obtaining.

For a start, there are just over twenty minutes’ worth of rehearsal extracts recorded during the Scheherazade sessions. These are riveting, and proof – if it is needed – of Stokowski’s mastery of an orchestra and his commanding manner. It is worth reminding oneself that this is an 82-year-old at work. He is astonishingly alert and focussed. His comments are pertinent and often dashed with laconic humour. One or two of his remarks are well worth pondering – “music is not mechanism – music is heart, feeling, passion, impulse”. He urges the orchestra – “permit yourself to be excited”. In a testy moment, his requests his players to “pay attention – if you don’t want to do it, there’s the door”.

And he also reveals a touching degree of modesty – I’ll try to do better” – and, when he reports that the playbacks he has heard are “splendid”, he adds “well, on your part and on the engineer’s part”.

Furthermore, there is the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave recorded at Stokowski’s 90th birthday concert. This is making its first appearance on CD and is not to be confused with a 1967 “Phase 4” studio recording. There is very little that needs to be said about this live recording. It is totally gripping and is as convincing a rendition as one is likely to hear of this music. I wish someone would re-issue the complete 90th birthday concert – parts of it are scattered on various releases on different labels. It was a remarkable event, and the Tchaikovsky is given with such mesmerising intensity and is a reminder that, in the right repertoire on the right occasion, Stokowski had few – if any – equals.

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