Stokowski & Grainger

0 of 5 stars

Country Gardens*
Mock Morris
Early One Morning
Shepherd’s Hey*
Irish Tune from County Derry
Molly on the Shore
Handel in the Strand*
The Tempest – Berceuse [arr. Stokowski]
Valse triste
Vaughan Williams
Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Goyescas – Intermezzo [arr. Langey]
Suite bergamasque – Clair de lune [orch. Stokowski]

Leopold Stokowski conducting His Symphony Orchestra (with Percy Grainger, piano *)

Recorded in New York between 1947 and 1953

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: December 2005
Duration: 78 minutes

The Grainger recordings were made in 1950 and stem from Stokowski’s request two years earlier that the composer should orchestrate several of his shorter pieces so that they could be recorded in orchestral form. Grainger obliged willingly and it is known that the two musicians met on several occasions to collaborate and to check the final scores and parts. Edward Johnson goes into this in detail in his informative notes. The booklet also includes a fascinating copy of a letter from Stokowski to Grainger where he refers to “our work” confirming that the influence over instrumentation was by no means confined to the composer. The recorded results certainly suggest of the ear of an organist – there are moments, especially in Shepherd’s Hey, where themes, melodies, or even brief phrases change swiftly from instrument to instrument. This suggests to me the philosophy of an adventurous organist who cannot resist trying all the stops on the organ in order to get the maximum variation of colour (and we know that Stokowski was an organist). Another great bonus is the presence of Grainger himself at the piano in three of the pieces. In Country Gardens and Shepherd’s Hey he plays no more than ‘piano continuo’ but in Handel in the Strand there are plenty of exposed piano passages and one that could be described as a ‘cadenza’. I was also amused to note that although the orchestra plays the quaint syncopation with verve, Grainger exaggerates these quirks even further when he repeats them solo. This is the gem of the set.

Sibelius is a good foil to Grainger – the utmost peace of the Berceuse is comforting but will surprise most lovers of “The Tempest” because Stokowski’s arrangement extends the music enormously. The original is an evocative, wispy piece for harp and harmonium. Stokowski retains and expands the harp part, but the orchestration represents a complete rethink of the remainder. Valse triste is delightfully romantic and, in Stokowski’s hands, hugely free in rhythm – but the music invites this.

The Vaughan Williams Fantasia was always a great Stokowski favourite. Excellent though the transfer of this 1952 mono recording may be, the music does require the spaciousness that more advanced recording techniques can provide. Unable to fully capture the effect of quiet distance of the small solo group, the engineers seek to solve the problem by opting for a different acoustic for these instruments. Yes, the solo strings are closer than ideal, but the contrast of timbre still indicates the change of perspective, which is so important at these moments. This music contains a most beautiful viola solo, played superbly by William Lincer. I am reminded of Stokowski’s only other recording of just under a quarter of a century later – here Frederick Riddle was the soloist and that too was magical. At those sessions it was interesting to note that Stokowski did not indicate the beat during that passage, allowing the soloist freedom of expression. Riddle certainly took full advantage of that liberty and maybe that happened in 1952 also: it certainly sounds like it. The 1952 performance is just three percent faster then the later version although many of the extra seconds taken in the 1975 recording can be accounted for by the amazingly long die-away of the final chord. I recall the playback of the first take of the music and after it finished, the conductor, surrounded in the control room by the orchestra principals, looked around and said: “I am still conducting, why are you not still playing?” Naturally the chord became far longer thereafter.

At seven minutes, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise in Stokowski’s orchestral version is slower than his 20-year later stereo version by some fifty seconds although the phrasing is similar. This is very much an intense all-through reading and despite the difference in tempo, the commitment is as complete here as in the later version.

Cala manages to disguise the 1947 provenance of the Debussy very effectively. Although this is a period when 78rpm recording was the norm, the notes indicate that this (and indeed the Granados from the same year) is from RCA copy-master tapes and there is no troublesome background noise.

The Granados and Ibert are more of a technical challenge because of the larger orchestra involved but again the sound is very presentable. The strings, if slightly grey, are very clear and the percussion instruments, be they castanets or subtle cymbals, come through with naturalness even though the recording is not especially bright in the treble.

There is no sign of over-zealous sound-reduction techniques during the 78 minutes assigned to this disc and the acceptable quality is very consistent even though the dates of these recordings range over six years. Stokowski always required a fair amount of resonance, often asking for it to be added at ends of pieces. Such studio resonance as may be on these recordings was probably applied by the original RCA engineer. If Cala has added more it is subtly achieved as not to be noticeable. Always a good sign of skilled refurbishment.

All in all this is a refreshing reissue.

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