The more I listen to Stokowski's Wagner the more I wish he had been able to do a Ring cycle or even better Tristan und Isolde. Other than his Bach transcriptions he recorded no other composer's music as much and it surpasses anyone else for the passion and drama Wagner imbued in his music. Whilst the stereo music is excellent, Stokowski's work with the Philadelphia Orchestra is unsurpassed. He and his instrument in Philadelphia were a symbiotic process.
Okay, so most of this music has been released previously on various Pear discs. So the question is do you need to replace those discs. Unfortunately the answer is yes you do One reason is that you have collected here in one set almost all of Stokowski's Philadelphia Wagner and at a very good price (around $10 per disc) including vocals from Lawrence Tibbet, Agnew Davis, Frederick Jegel, and Helen Traubel. The set also includes several acoustic recordings which were not issued previously: the Rienzi Overture and Lohengrin: Act One Prélude and the finale to Götterdämmerung and the Dresden version of the Overture to Tannhäuser as well as the Fest March.
The second reason is the sound. In the notes for the Pearl release of The Ring music the remastering artist Ward Marston opines, "The results on the original records were but a pale reflection of what Stokowski and the orchestra were able to achieve in concert (or even under better recording conditions.) Modern transfer technology can mitigate these flaws to some extent, and allow us to hear for the first time something of the impact which Stokowski intended." What was true in 1994 is even more so, significantly better in 2003. There is less surface noise, there is a better back to front perspective, most important is that now solos, individual details that were muffled, at best, then are clear now which adds to the gestalt. The result is a completely different experience, more enjoyable and yet from the same producer, Ward Marston. It should be added that whilst there is, of course, some difference in the sound from different periods (especially the acoustics) it is not a distraction.
Third, the extensive notes are informative and interesting. Tim Page, Ward Marston and Jed Distler all offer insights. Mr. Page points out that Stokowski was an organist and "played the 100-odd men he had handpicked for the Philadelphia Orchestra as if they were separate pipes in the most sumptuous, versatile and smoothly blended organ ever devised." Ward's essay discusses the recordings themselves and says that in later years Stokowski couldn't listen to these recordings because of their lack of the lack of ambient reverberation and that "For this reissue artificial reverberation has been added…in accordance with Stokowski's wishes." This is one of the factors in the improved sound on this set. Mr. Distler's article talks about the use of free bowing, which I have maintained is also a factor in the organ-like sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Included in his essay is a photo copy of Stokowski's score for his "free transcription" of the "Love Music" from Tristan und Isolde.
Another Fascinating aspect of this collection is pairing of different recordings of the same pieces. On disc three are the 1929 and 1936 recordings of the Tannhäuser Overture and "Venusberg Music". The later recording is 2 minutes faster and includes the female voices of 17 singers. The sound had improved greatly after 7 years and is a better performance as well, capturing the Stokowski sound more clearly with better solo contributions. That disc also includes the Dresden version of the Overture as well (another acoustic recording from 1922). On disc four are the 1932 and 1937 recordings of Stokowski's first and second versions of Tristan und Isolde. Again, the better recording techniques (and larger forces in the later recording) improve the experience. The two versions are different as well.
Finally, of course there is the Stokowski Sound itself. The strings sing and sigh on a canvas of an organ-like sonority swelling from the double basses. The "Ride of the Valkyries" is interesting in that it has a closing like in the opera instead of the usual orchestral one. Every emotion inherent in the music is brought forth from this music in a manner that eclipses anything since…in some ways even more than in The Maestro's later, stereo recordings.
If this all sounds familiar return to the opening paragraph. I simply cannot say this too often.
Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II