Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski (both recorded 1977)
Symphony No.53 in D (Imperial)
Hänsel und Gretel Prelude
German Dance in C, K605/3
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61
Johann Strauss II
On the Beautiful Blue Danube
Tales from the Vienna Woods
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra (recorded 1949-50)
Tchaikovsky edited Diaghilev
Auroras Wedding (music from The Sleeping Beauty)
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski (all recorded 1976)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2002
CD No: See above
Duration: See above
Whether one thinks Leopold Stokowski a great conductor or, like me, is more circumspect, there’s no doubting his singularity. He could be notorious – not only as an interventionist regarding the notated score but in his wholesale changes of orchestration, cuts and re-writing. He could be ’straight’ too but he invariably lavished (or indulged) a Technicolor orchestral palette on his repertoire. Magician and master colourist to some, a charlatan or, at best, whimsical to others. Stokowski made music vivid, thrilling audiences with intense, moulded expression and vibrancy.
Cala has been unstinting in its championing of Stokowski. Its ’Stokie’ collection to date, in league with The Leopold Stokowski Society, has produced some handsome issues, excellent in terms of transfers and biography. These most recent releases include ’late’ Stokowski – Aurora’s Wedding and Encores were made in 1976, the Brahms/Mendelssohn coupling is from 1977; Stokowski died in 1977 aged 95.
Anyone new to Stokowski might wonder why neither orchestra here is an established one. It should be noted therefore that Stokowski had a long tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-38) and, later, was conductor of the Houston Symphony; he was also a regular guest with the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestras. The orchestras on these CDs are made up of hand-picked musicians brought together for recording purposes.
In the Brahms and Mendelssohn symphonies one does register the odd dropped stitch or some less than unanimous ensemble. In return there’s much spontaneity and many felicitous touches of orchestral blend and emphasis; for example the rugged double basses in the first movement of the ’Italian’, itself perfectly paced – poised and articulate –with some ear-tweaking contrasts of dynamic. Organic growth is enhanced by what sounds like movement-long takes with minimal editing; therefore ’real’ performances are preserved. The ’Italian’ is fresh, phrased with affection and without indulgence, and for all Stokowski’s nonagenarian status there’s plenty of vitality and control; the pin-point rhythmic élan and measured tempo of the saltarello ’Finale’ give particular delight.
’Stokie’ observes the first movement repeats in both symphonies – very important ones in my opinion. The Brahms is beautifully played, not least by the silky-smooth strings, and flows nicely too, yet Stokowski seems more interested in producing a specifically concentrated ’singing’ string sound. This isn’t a Brahms 2 to wallow in, the forward-moving tempi do not allow that, yet nagging away is the feeling that Stokowski rarely penetrates into the core of music essentially Classical with Romantic leanings. This Brahms, if cut from too similar-sounding cloth, isn’t superficial; rather it is not skin-deep enough despite some beguiling detail and heartfelt phrasing, albeit a reading to return to, especially the unhurried, purposeful ’Finale’ if not the awkward turn into the finishing measures (9’ 09”-9’ 13”).
Talking of ungainly codas, Stokowski makes a meal of the closing bars of Schumann’s first movement – an unconvincing rallentando (from 10’ 07”) and a ’rushed-rubato’ crusade through the final six chords. Yet this 1950 recording preserves a rather wonderful interpretation, rising to perfectly wonderful in the sublime ’Adagio espressivo’ where the American musicians (including some great names from the New York Philharmonic) really soar the music, Stokowski shaping the movement as an entity.
Otherwise, although one can nit-pick over a few mannerisms, this is a glorious rendition that, if a little portentous come the close, is alive to the music’s volatility, fantasy and profundity. Stokowski has the measure of the design, filigree detail and expressive intertwining that makes Schumann his wonderful self. Schumann’s Second is one of the pinnacles of nineteenth-century symphonism; for the most part Stokowski does it proud in this ample and driven traversal, one that solves Schumann’s supposedly ’difficult’ writing for the most eloquent purposes.
Listeners may find sudden changes of tempo discursive, and eyebrows could be raised at Stokowski’s retarding way with the first ’Trio’ (the second one is given with winning tenderness). The points and shifts of the ’Scherzo’ itself are nicely observed and ’Stokie’ the potential showman avoids an obvious speeding-up (well, nearly) for its final seconds (from 6’ 37”) if not a re-write for the violins (6’ 53”-6’ 57”).
Also on this CD is an appropriately regal account of the Haydn (1949), full-toned and shapely, the ’Finale’ especially convincing at a tempo well under the ’Presto’ marking – speed for its own sake is a real turn-off; better to appreciate shape and articulacy. (Haydn 53 has alternative last movements – Stokowski plays one considered “spurious”; to my mind, believing Haydn to be among the supreme composers, it is authentically imaginative and meaningful.)
This ’historic Stokie’ issue has been expertly transferred, the sound is full and detailed, if a little variable, with little or no surface crackle or hiss, nor any degeneration of the actual music. Of the remaining items (all 1949), the Mozart dance could be more insouciant and the two Strauss waltzes are unidiomatic (shall we say!). Thankfully abridged to four minutes apiece (i.e. for 78rpm sides), tempo fluctuations are as numerous as phrasal distortions; the extra side drum strokes in Blue Danube and a pitch-queasy Vienna Woods, with an electronic-sounding zither that makes toe-curling listening, give little pleasure. There’s compensation in the Hänsel prelude, a mellifluous version magically suggestive and warmly atmospheric with just a hint of ’danger within’, the composer’s attraction to Wagner evident in allusions to Die Walküre’s ’Magic Fire Music’ and Parsifal.
Stokowski will perhaps be most remembered for leading spectacular orchestral scores and party-piece encores, the latter a feature of his concerts, perhaps his orchestration of a piano piece or one of his famous Bach transcriptions.
The final CD combines the spectacle of Tchaikovsky with some Stokowski-generated trinkets. One of the problems with Aurora’s Wedding – choreographer Diaghilev’s selection from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty – is the recording. Unlike Brahms and Mendelssohn, both enjoying excellent Abbey Road Studio One reproduction, poor old Aurora loses out to the reverberation of London’s West Ham Central Mission. This amount of space doesn’t do the music any favours. The sound, while full and powerful, is also remote, glossy and over-bright. It’s as much the acoustic as Stokowski that allows certain instruments to be timbrally teeth-cringing (harp scales for instance). While there’s no denying the voltage and charisma of Stokowski’s concept, skilfully played, it’s also wearing; and the intrinsically reserved aspect of Tchaikovsky’s music is lost to such overblown treatment. Some changes to Tchaikovksy’s scoring are noted.
I am grateful to Edward Johnson, Stokowski-expert and the writer of the booklets’ excellent notes, for informing me that only one track of the original encore LP is missing here. It, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ivan the Terrible, is on Sony SBK 62647, a collection of Russian music otherwise conducted by Eugene Ormandy, Stokowski’s successor in Philadelphia.
Of these transcription-encores (sounding less blowsy in the Mission), Debussy’s piano music – ’Clair de lune’ (Suite Bergamasque) and ’La soirée dans Grenade’ (Estampes) – is given poetic (sometimes soupy) and gaudy treatment in equal measure. The Spanish theme continues in an atmospheric rendering of Albéniz’s ’Fête-Dieu à Seville’ (Iberia), its bombast spilling into Shostakovich’s E flat minor Prelude (from Op.34) with blaring brass and doom-laden gong strokes. Novacek’s Perpetuum Mobile is quite arresting in a macabre way, while Rimsky’s Bumble-Bee buzzes around in plenty of aural spread! Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque proves pretty and deftly instrumented, and Chopin’s B flat minor Mazurka and D minor Prelude (the last of the Op.28 set) work well, even the Mazurka’s muted trumpet; trilling brass in the Prelude certainly has a tingle factor.
This last CD may well prove to be the one that collectors want most. I suggest that the Haydn, Humperdinck, Mendelssohn and Schumann items are equally desirable.