Roman Sketches The White Peacock
Caucasian Sketches In the Village
Francesca da Rimini
Fantasia on Greensleeves
Der fliegende Holländer Overture
Die Walküre Wotans Farewell & Magic Fire Music (arr. Stokowski)
Billy the Kid (two excerpts)
Schoenberg (arr. Erwin Stein)
Gurrelieder The Song of the Wood-Dove *
Swanwhite Maiden with the Roses
Serenade for Strings, Op.48 Waltz
Götterdämmerung Siegfrieds Rhine Journey; Siegfrieds Funeral March
Martha Lipton (mezzo-soprano) *
New York Philharmonic
Recorded in New York 1947, in Carnegie Hall; 1949, in 30th Street Studios
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: December 2002
CD No: See above
Duration: See above
These recordings, according to Richard Gate in his booklet note, “have a special place in gramophone history.” High praise! It’s one that the excellent mastering on these CDs bears out. At the time of the 1947 sessions the Conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York was Artur Rodzinski. While noting Rodzinski’s orchestra-training abilities, Mr Gate implies that Stokowski was a stave or two above that particular conductor – “it [the orchestra] was now ready for a supreme maestro of Stokowski’s abilities to show what it could do.” Writing as someone who has been much taken with Rodzinski’s work, consistently more so than with Stokowski in fact, I find this comment a (hopefully unintended) slight on Rodzinski.
The implication of this statement though is that Stokowski got orchestras to play wonderfully well. Equally it might suggest that orchestral beauty and laundered virtuosity formed Stokowski’s conducting armoury. This doesn’t necessarily embrace interpretation or the ability to plumb the depths of music; it has more to do with music as sound (noise). We listeners have different criteria. Mine would include presenting the music from within, from the wellspring of the music itself. There is certainly a thrill to be had from superb and beautiful playing. Yet to my mind, such applied things, unless distilled with the acoustic-science and tonal interrelationship of Celibidache, can be of transitory pleasure.
On these CDs, conductor and repertoire are mostly well matched. The music rather than the conductor is illuminated – not always the case with ’Stokie’. Both CDs have a generous mix of Wagner (25 minutes on Volume 1, ten minutes more on the other). Rienzi is richly moulded and full of panache, maybe somewhat clipped (and with some additional piccolo writing from the conductor?). The Flying Dutchman overture undoubtedly has charisma, although I thought it a little forced. Quite superb are the Die Walküre excerpt and the perfectly joined Götterdämmerung pairing – Stokowski sustains tension and conjures vivid theatrical atmosphere with a real sense of the orchestral textures radiating outwards.
Atmosphere too in the Ippolitov-Ivanov as gentle melancholy wafts through on solo viola and cor anglais until exotic dancing strikes up to enliven proceedings. Similarly The White Peacock has that magical element that maybe transcends the actual music. Drama and white-hot execution inform Francesca da Rimini. I have no qualms with a few cuts being made in repetitive passages, which is probably an improvement and there is no doubt about the storm-tossed and glinting playing.
Of the short pieces, Vaughan Williams’s updating of Henry the Eighth’s ditty (if indeed he wrote it) is altogether too saccharine, static and consciously beautiful. In contrast Sibelius’s Maiden exudes a haunting impression and instrumental focus. So too ’Prairie Night’ from Billy the Kid; the following ’Celebration’ is a bit spiky and pushed though. Tchaikovsky’s Waltz has a sheen out of keeping with its Slav character; Stokowski’s toys with it to no real advantage.
Stokowski was no stranger to contemporary music and never shirked from challenging audiences. I’ve never been wholly sold on Messiaen’s brand of spiritualism. Its striving upwards and penchant for corny cadences can be too diverting. Stokowski keeps L’Ascension on the move recognising that Messiaen, unstinting in his fervour and prayer, needs refinement and virtuosity added to the notation; these are duly supplied. From the sublime to the ridiculous – or vice versa, depending on your point of view – Khachaturian’s timbral vibrancy is relished by Stokowski and the Philharmonic enjoys itself hugely – so too the listener. There’s a beautiful violin solo from Concertmaster John Corigliano (father of the contemporary composer) in the ’Nocturne’; otherwise the music’s knock-about quality is fully seized upon and ideally served-up. Schoenberg’s Wood-Dove scena from the end of Gurrelieder’s first part uses the familiar reduced orchestration (here credited to Erwin Stein) – made for the “Society of Private Musical Performances” – with Martha Lipton a plangent and characterful soloist.
If occasionally reminding that Stokowski’s parameters meant some music being unconvincingly cast, these CDs also bring much that can be considered the best of Stokowski. The conductor’s admirers won’t hesitate, of course, and the 1940s’ sound should be no barrier to anyone else.