Stokowski’s Boris & Parsifal

0 of 5 stars

Boris Godunov (Scenes)
Parsifal – Good Friday Music *
Wagner / Stokowski
Parsifal – Symphonic Synthesis of Act Three *

Boris Godunov / Vaarlam – Nicola Rossi-Lemeni
The Simpleton – Lawrence Mason
Fyodor – Raymond Cauwet

San Francisco Opera Chorus
San Francisco Boys’ Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski

Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra *

Boris recorded on 8 & 10 December 1952 in San Francisco; Parsifal on 17 & 24 September 1952 in New York

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: July 2003
Duration: 80 minutes

Purists will probably object to this disc, as they usually do when Stokowski’s name is mentioned. In an age in which concepts of authenticity and faddishness over critical editions frequently take precedence over communicative power, Stokowski’s fondness for adaptation, arrangement and the preparation of what might be termed ’digests’ of individual works renders him suspect in the eyes of many, who consequently either fail or refuse to give his interpretations credence.

He was not, by any means, unique in this. Felix Weingartner was equally prone to touching up scores, most notably those of Beethoven, whom he regarded as sacrosanct. But Stokowski – the great progressive, committed not only to broadening the repertoire but to bringing new audiences to classical music – was popular in ways that Weingartner, whatever his greatness as a musician, never could be. Popularity can be notoriously tricky in the classical music world, and Stokowski, like many, has consequently come to be regarded as in some quarters as being ’not serious’. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth as this disc proves.

Its aim is to present us with a portrait of Stokowski as an opera conductor, with sizeable chunks of two works that were integral to his career. His forays into opera were comparatively few and far between, the most famous being the American premiere of Wozzeck in 1931 and Turandot, which he conducted at the Met thirty years later. Boris Godunov and Parsifal were perhaps personally more important to him, however. He first conducted Boris in Philadelphia in 1929, taking Pavel Lamm’s recently published edition of the original score as his basis (this was years ahead of its time), and inserting the Polish scenes from the 1872 revision into Mussorgsky’s first, 1869, version of the opera.

Parsifal, meanwhile, was the only Wagner opera he conducted complete – again in Philadelphia, this time in 1933 – though he regularly scheduled extracts from the work in his concerts.

The extracts from Boris Godunov were recorded in 1952, in tandem with a series of concerts in San Francisco, using the chorus and cast of a production at the San Francisco Opera the previous year. Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition – now much maligned, then widely prevalent – had been used in the theatre, and Stokowski reverted to it, preparing his own selection of excerpts, 50 minutes or so of music, linking many of them by bells or tuned percussion to run as a continuous whole.

The result proves thrilling and awkward by turns. The juxtaposition of Vaarlam’s Song with Boris’s Monologue and the Clock Scene leads to an extended central section for solo bass, which at times feels unvariegated. Some of the solo lines have been cut – you really do miss the Boyars egging the crowds on in the Coronation Scene and Marina’s grandiose utterances during the Polonaise – and, rather regrettably, the march to which the Pretender Dmitri sweeps in during the Revolution Scene.

Yet at the same time, the performance is electric, particularly in terms of conducting, playing and choral singing. Stokowski propels the music on with a vivid intensity that wonderfully captures the pulse and atmosphere of each individual scene. The choruses in the opening scenes are gloriously contrasted, with the crowds forced compliance giving way to the almost manic elation of the Coronation and the genuine spirituality of the monks chanting in the Chudov Monastery. The mechanical precision of the Polonaise captures the false glitter and shady intrigue of Marina’s court. The performance totally belies the often-voiced criticism that Stokowski was primarily interested in sonority for its own sake. Here we find tone colour allied with drama at every turn, from the mournful oboe solo with which the work opens, through the extravagant pomp of the Coronation (taken at one hell of a lick), to the weird string and woodwind figurations that slowly gnaw away at Boris’s mind.

Yet the solo singing isn’t quite in the same league. Stokowski’s Boris is the half-Italian, half-Russian bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, an artist more usually associated with the bel canto repertory, largely thanks to his appearances in a number of Maria Callas’s EMI recordings from the 50s. His performance certainly gives us a wider view of his overall achievement, though it doesn’t quite warrant the extravagant claims, made when he performed the role in San Francisco, that he was “the greatest Boris since Chaliapin”. In 1951, American critics could be forgiven for not mentioning Boris Christoff, who had yet to sing the role in the States, but the statement awkwardly bypasses Alexander Kipnis, who appeared as Boris many times in America in the 40s and whose performance – mercifully preserved on tape from the Met in 1943 with George Szell conducting – is by far the finest of the title role to exist in sound.

Comparison of the two certainly doesn’t always show Rossi-Lemeni to advantage. His Boris is primarily world-weary from the start, the key to his entire performance being the opening words, “My soul is sad”. His voice, very rich, sonorous and fervent, is unquestionably beautiful and he is often wonderful in noble despair. He cracks too soon, however, making the Clock Scene the climax of his interpretation, his voice hovering tensely between speech and song. Unfortunately this leaves him nowhere to go at the end of the opera and the Death Scene curiously lacks fire. It’s nobly enunciated, essentially nostalgic, even melancholic, yet there’s none of the sense of physical pain that Kipnis brings to this music, nor does Rossi-Lemeni capture the man’s overwhelming metaphysical terror that damnation might be the outcome of his crimes. Stokowski’s deployment here of a dispassionate sounding boy treble, Raymond Cauwet, rather than the usual soprano, doesn’t help matters. Rossi-Lemeni also gets to sing Vaarlam’s song, however, which he does with wondrously raucous ribaldry.

The tenor Lawrence Mason as the Simpleton is adequate, no more – you need to listen to Alexei Maslennikov in Karajan’s complete recording of the opera (Rimsky edition again) to hear what can really be done with this music.

The Parsifal extracts, meanwhile, were also recorded in 1952, in New York this time, with a handpicked group of musicians. The excerpts consist of the Good Friday Music and Stokowski’s own Symphonic Synthesis of Act Three, which flanks the act’s central interlude with music associated with Parsifal’s return to Monsalvat and his subsequent presentation of the stolen spear to the Grail community, though Stokowski brings the Synthesis to a close some way before the final pages of the opera. Phenomenally played, both extracts are ravishingly beautiful, and deeply, genuinely spiritual. There’s none of the neurotic, mystico-erotic quality here that we find in Parsifal interpreters as far apart as Bodansky, Clemens Krauss and Solti. Instead the music, approached with great love, reverence and awe seems to flow calmly out of eternity into sound and back again.

The transfers of both recordings are exemplary. A wonderful disc, despite its occasional flaws, and highly recommended. Texts and translations included.

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