Stokowski’s Four Seasons and Messiah

0 of 5 stars

The Four Seasons

Hugh Bean (violin)

New Philharmonia Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski

Recorded 11 June 1966 in Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London

Messiah [Excerpts – Overture; Every valley shall be exalted; And the glory of the Lord; Pastoral Symphony; Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened; Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He was cut off from the land of the living; Why do the nations; Hallelujah; I know that my Redeemer liveth; Since by man came death; Amen]

Sheila Armstrong (soprano)
Norma Procter (contralto)
Kenneth Bowen (tenor)
John Cameron (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski

Recorded 20 September 1966, Kingsway Hall, London


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: September 2004
CD No: CALA CACD0538 (2 CDs)
Duration: 104 minutes



Seeing the name of Leopold Stokowski coupled with two of the ‘standard’ works of the Baroque era might cause the listener to expect readings replete with intervention and/or orchestral re-touching. Such expectations may be forgiven, if one’s awareness of Stokowski in this repertoire is confined to the conductor’s highly imaginative transcriptions, in which he did not hesitate to exploit the resources of the modern symphony orchestra. In these 1966 recordings, originally issued in Decca’s “Phase 4” series, Stokowski, by and large, plays it straight – so the ondes martenot deployed by Stokowski in his transcription of Buxtehude’s Sarabande and Courante, for instance, is not to be found in these interpretations of Handel and Vivaldi.

In The Four Seasons – the first four concertos of Vivaldi’s opus 8 collectively entitled “The Contest of Harmony and Invention” – a large string section is used and this information alone may be enough to put off some potential collectors. Here is no small-scale quasi ‘authentic’ group, but rather the dimensions and sonority of a substantial string orchestra. But this is not for a moment to suggest that Stokowski’s overall approach is overblown or inflated. On the contrary, this reading of a work, which the conductor was approaching for the first time at the age of 84, is notable for its sobriety and, perhaps surprisingly, restraint at times.

Tempos, on the whole, are measured. That is not to say that they are excessively slow, but under Stokowski’s guidance, the ‘allegro’ movements are not rushed. As a result, one can hear some of the inner part writing with unusual clarity – such as in the finale of ‘Autumn’ – and notes have time to register rather than flying past. Allegro does not mean presto, although when that marking is given – as in the third movement of ‘Summer’ – the momentum is irresistible even if, in that instance, something approaching the elemental storm at the opening of Die Walküre is suggested rather than the shower that ‘period’ groups interpret as Vivaldi’s intention.

So Stokowski adopts what might be dubbed as a ‘romantic’ approach. Taken on these terms, this performance is highly successful. Not the least of the ingredients that contributes to its effectiveness is Hugh Bean’s poised and articulate playing. The doyen of orchestral leaders in London, his small but distinguished discography as soloist (including one of the loveliest performances of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, with Boult) is further enhanced by this Vivaldi recording. He is attentive to detail, and Stokowski’s spacious approach ensures that passages that pose technical challenges do not draw attention to themselves as moments to be admired from a purely virtuosic standpoint. Bean’s lyrical playing is especially affecting – the slow movement of ‘Winter’ is really delightful, the solo line singing freely above the pointed pizzicato accompaniment.

Hugh Bean was to have contributed booklet notes to this Cala reissue, but died in December 2003. Thus this release, as well as marking the 25th anniversary of the Leopold Stokowski Society becomes, perforce, a tribute to Bean’s distinguished career.

In a performance of this kind there are, perhaps inevitably, moments that will not be to all tastes. Some of Stokowski’s end-of-movement (and sometimes end-of-section) rallentandos do seem a touch excessive, and one movement I did not feel happy with was the second movement of ‘Autumn’, where the string chords are heard against a fussily ornamented harpsichord part. Granted the score directs arpeggios in that instrument, but I’m not sure that a distracting counterpoint is quite what the composer had in mind. Overall, I was struck by just how heartfelt and affectionate this performance is: a welcome reminder of Stokowski’s musicianship put to restrained rather than excessive use.

Re-visiting Messiah nearly 60 years after having previously conducted it in Cincinnati in 1909, according to the reminiscences of the soloists cited in the booklet, Stokowski apparently felt the need for little rehearsal in 1966. Even so, his own ‘stamp’ is firmly implanted on these excerpts from Handel’s oratorio.

Here, the leisurely tempos are rather more inhibiting than they are in the Vivaldi, and as the selections themselves are nearly all measured in character, these lend a certain want of momentum to the sequence as a whole. Stokowski pays little heed to received notions of Baroque practice, so the ‘Overture’, for instance, does not have the ‘double-dotting’ implied in Handel’s notation at the start, and the big string tone here is somewhat glutinous in effect. No repeat is taken, but the fugato has an admirable spring in its step. In the other purely orchestral item, the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ – given in its ‘full’ version – the tempo is very slow indeed, and the impact of the gentle, lilting rhythm is minimised.

The soloists each have, according to Stokowski, “the finest music for his or her voice,” but the tenor has three solos “simply because the music is so great.” Certainly the team assembled is a fine one, though Kenneth Bowen does not, initially, sound entirely at home with the stately andante adopted for “Every valley…”. One admires his breath control and evenness of line. The strings in “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” do sound as if they are accompanying Parsifal is in one of his more pensive moods, and it would seem that Stokowski has adopted what might be termed a ‘devotional’ approach to Handel’s oratorio which should have at least a whiff of drama about it. One feels the need for a more sprung approach to string articulation, and the tang of Handel’s scoring for oboes and bassoons does not register in this recording.

Bass John Cameron contributes a fiery “Why do the nations rage?” with a superbly bristling orchestral introduction, but the aria is treated as a da capo, which is not in any version with which I am familiar. It should segue into the chorus “Let us break their bonds”, which is omitted here. The most completely successful item is “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, with some quite outstanding singing from Sheila Armstrong, achieving an easeful realisation of the melodic line and supported by a pliant accompaniment.

At its outset, the “Hallelujah” chorus is given a hail and hearty reading, but the slowing for the central section feels clumsy, and the re-written final phrase – also found in the “Amen” chorus – with sopranos taking notes higher than those prescribed, sounds more appropriate for the conclusion of a Hollywood Biblical epic than for a judicious realisation of Handel’s score.

During the 1960s, performances of Messiah were starting to be given with a more authentic flavour – on disc, those by Colin Davis and Charles Mackerras spring to mind – and so Stokowski’s hearkening back to a much earlier (Victorian?) era perhaps even then struck an anachronistic note.

Nevertheless, the sincerity of Stokowski’s approach shines through and, like them or not, his intentions are carried out with conviction; Stokowski’s spell generally enchants. The “Phase 4” technique, which included a considerable degree of multi-miking, is not so marked in these recordings as it is on some others, including those reissued and re-mastered by Cala. There are though moments of distortion and/or overload, and, in the Messiah choruses, odd voices tend to obtrude. The re-mastering has introduced some slight discoloration to bass and pianissimo passages.

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