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CD Review

The Stokowski Legacy

BBC 91542

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Symphony #5
  • Symphony #1 *
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (17 September 1964 - Live Stereo)
* Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
BBC Radio Classics 91542 (IMP)
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Cala 505

Russian Masterworks

NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Produced in conjunction with the Leopold Stokowski Society. Released June 1996
Cala CACD0505 Mono Recorded in *1941, 1942
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Stokowski made the second ever recording of this symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra on 20 April 1939. That recording is currently available on a two-disc Pearl issue GEMM 9044 (and has just been released on a single disc from Michael Dutton, coupled with the 6th). That performance really ought to be heard, the orchestra and Stokowski bring out an oriental atmosphere not found in most performances. Stokowski made a second commercial recording for Everest with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York (the New York Philharmonic in Summer drag) in 1958. That recording has been superbly remastered and released on CD Everest 9030. Both of those recordings, however, are tame by comparison with this one. Take the first movement, for example, at 14:27 with the London Symphony Orchestra, 16:38 with the Philadelphia and 16:05 with the New York Philharmonic. While timings are not always a true measure of an interpretation, they are in this case.

This particular performance has been previously available, most recently on Music and Arts CD-765. That CD included Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, aLondon Symphony Orchestra from the same concert, and a live BBC Symphony Orchestra performance of the Mussorgsky/Stokowski Pictures at an Exhibition from 23 July 1963. The sound on that disc is very good, suffering only from FM noise inherent in the masters. That is to the advantage of this new disc.

The BBC CD is marginally superior to the Music and Arts. That may sound like an oxymoron of sorts, but it is not. You see, sometimes a slight difference renders a significant one. For example, when Salome removes the last veil. Here is a case in point. The removal of the FM noise makes for more clarity and body to the whole performance. You can play the disc at a louder level, one that makes the M&A disc unlistenable because of the noise. So, the result is a much more involving sound with more detail, like the oboe at 2:00+ into the first movement.

The addition of the Horenstein instead of more Stokowski may dissuade some of you from making this purchase. That would be an error. Anyone familiar with Horenstein's Mahler or Bruckner knows how underrated Maestro Horenstein is, and recognizes him as a great conductor. The Shostakovich Symphony #1, as presented by Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic, is excellent with sound slightly better than on the Fifth Symphony.

Two parts of the Stokowski legacy have been somewhat neglected in issues over the years. Those recordings he made with the All-American Symphony Orchestra (1940 and 41) were not available until the L.S.S.A. issued its last LP (and CDs). While there is still a lot not available from those years, at least some of them are now on Music and Arts. The second are the recordings Stokowski made with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Again, the L.S.S.A. issued its second LP, in 1985, containing the Tchaikovsky Symphony on this CD. That issue, however, was bothered by the fact that it was transferred using non-Dolby instead of Dolby A. It was only scarcely available anyway. So, this disc does provide some important information to the Stokowski legacy. Let's start with the main reasons for buying this disc, the Tchaikovsky Symphony and the Stravinsky Firebird.

This was the second of what was to be three Stokowski recordings of Tchaikovsky's 4th. The first was with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1928 (currently available on Pearl GEMM 9120 in a wonderful transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn). The last was with the American Symphony Orchestra in 1971. While timings do not always indicate any significant difference, in this case it does, so here they are:

MovementPhiladelphiaNBC
Symphony
All-American
Symphony
I16:4015:4117:29
II9:2110:079:30
III5:365:025:40
IV8:428:139:25

As can be seen, in all but the second movement, the NBC performance is significantly faster. This is undoubtedly the most exciting of the three. It is as if Stokowski, having heard the metronome steeple chases that Toscanini would get from this orchestra, decided to tap its virtuosity. I should aLondon Symphony Orchestra add that this recording sounds better than it ever has. It is much better than the 78s!! So it is an interesting insight to the Stokowski legacy.

There are, however, a couple things that might dissuade the non-Stokowski collector. The first is the willfulness of the interpretation. While Stokowski doesn't accentuate or pull things around as much as in the American Symphony Orchestra performance, it is more Stokowski than Tchaikovsky. David Hall noted this in his 1943 edition of The Record Book. The second is the sound. I have said that this Cala issue sounds better than any other form and that is true. On the other hand, don't expect the fullness and body you can hear in the Philadelphia recording. This NBC performance was recorded in the Cosmopolitan Opera House in New York. This was done while acoustical improvements were being made to Studio 8-H in the NBC Studios. (This information, by the way, is from the excellent notes written by Edward Johnson for this release.) The opera house had better resonance, or so it is said. If that is true I can hear why I do not like most of Toscanini's recordings made in 8-H. The sound from the opera house is dry, there is little air around the music and the woodwinds sound malnourished. It is, however, a delight to hear the oboe (played by Bob Bloom) sounding good, very Russian.

If you want a recording of the Tchaikovsky 4th by Stokowski, the best is the Philadelphia recording from 1928. It sounds better than the NBC recording. There is more presence and reverberation in that performance. It is not as willful a performance, with delicious accents on the notes and a crisper interpretation. The lower strings sigh more here, and the strings don't have the heart-throbbing intensity that gives both the NBC and American Symphony Orchestra performances a distracting aspect.

If you want a Stokowski performance of the Tchaikovsky 4th (note the subtle but important difference) the American Symphony Orchestra performance is to be preferred. It has some of the mannerisms of the NBC performance in much better sound. In fact, Omega/Vanguard has done an excellent job with this disc (on Vanguard OVC8012), While this is a slower performance it is not lethargic at all. The strings throb in a melancholy way and pauses, which add a lot to the length, are filled with tension from a resonance achieved in part by the free bowing Stokowski used. Stokowski milks it for all its worth.

Then there is the matter of this NBC Symphony Orchestra Firebird Suite, recorded in 1942. Stokowski must have loved this piece, he recorded it more than any other (even his own Bach Toccata and Fugue) 8 times. The first was in 1924. I have not heard that acoustic recording. I have taken the time to compare five of the recordings: the 1927 and 35 Philadelphia recordings, this NBC Symphony Orchestra one, the Berlin PO in 1957 and the London Symphony 1967 Phase Four release.

The 1927 recording would be my first pick for a monaural, historic recording of the piece. The opening is truly sinister and eerie. The sound in this Ward Marston remastering has body and heft. There is a natural decay around the music as it fades. There is excellent, delicious detail. At the opening of the finale the feathery strings give the embers a shimmering glow. This is aLondon Symphony Orchestra the fastest of the 8 recordings, 18:37 vs. A 22:17 for the London Symphony performance. Those speeds, however, may well have had more to do with 78 sides timings and marketing considerations. There are two existing recordings of the 1935 recording and they are educative in their comparative remasterings.

Ward Marston has been one of the pioneers and giants in the art of transfers from 78 to 33 to CD. His work for the 1935 Firebird can be heard on Pearl GEMM 9031. Given that both issues are remastered by the same person we can reasonably assume that we are hearing a comparative study in sound. As for performance, there is little but important difference. Timings in this case are virtually identical. On the other hand, the playing in 1935 is just slightly less articulated. Music tends to be more homogenous. The recording itself adds to this effect as it is just slightly veiled in comparison. The last ounce of detail is not as audible.

I really cannot give any recommendation to the 1935 recording as issued on Michael Dutton's label. Mr. Dutton's transfers have won praise in many journals and books (the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs gives this release a Rosette). To these ears, however, the sound has been sucked out of the music. It is dry, no air around the music. If you want to hear this piece, in the 1935 recording, as Stokowski would have expected (is this some kind of period performance fallacy?) Ward's is the one to get. It has more body and atmosphere and thereby conveys a more sinister aspect.

This NBC recording is better than the Dutton of the '35, but still not as good as the 1935 on Pearl. The sound has much more body than the Dutton release, but is still dry by comparison to the Pearl issue. The performance, like that of the Tchaikovsky Symphony, is very exciting, more so than the Philadelphia recordings. Still, if I had to live with just one historic recording, it would be the 1927 one. An interesting addition to my comments come from David Hall's 1943 book.

Mr. Stokowski must have a special affection for this music, in that this is the fourth electrical recording he has made of it. Those with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Victor M-291) and the All-American Orchestra (Columbia M-446) are still current in the record catalogs. It's a pleasure to say that this new version tops all of its predecessors in respect to both performance and recording. In fact this is the best recording job yet accorded the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

So, there you go.

One point needs to be made at this juncture. One of the most enlightening things about this Cala release is, as previously mentioned, a study of the recordings. The Tchaikovsky Symphony and the Prokofieff were recorded at the Cosmopolitan Opera House in New York while acoustic improvements were made to NBC's Studio 8-H. The improvements included installation of panels to make the studio more reverberant. The Firebird, recorded the following year in the Stokowski improved 8-H has much more body than the opera house one. In fact, it comes close to the 1927 Stokowski Sound. It is amazing how different the 8-H recording sounds from the pieces recorded at the Cosmopolitan. You can really appreciate what Stokowski was able to achieve and realize how his work in acoustics enhanced music, providing additional insight to the Stokowski Legacy. Add to this the fact that this 1942 Firebird is very exciting and you have a recording worth adding to any Stokowski collection.

The less said about the Berlin Phil recording for EMI the better. The recording has a nice, dark, velvety cushion to it, but that is the problem. There is no detail to the sound. All of the previous recordings have more character because of the details that are there. It is almost like the orchestra was at odds with Stokowski. I remember grabbing this LP when I came across it thinking that the combination of Stokowski and the Berlin Phil would be dynamite. I was off by about 10 years and a different orchestra and recording company.

The 1967 London Symphony recording of Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite, on a recent Decca/London "Phase Four" release (443898-2, with other Stokowski Indian Summer gems) is my personal favorite. I can think of no other recording of this work that I would rate higher on any criteria. The opening tread has an inevitability about it and the sound has a Stopendous body. The front-to-back perspective will rival any digital release. There are many moments where I caught my breath as a detail swept me. The finale's embers really are glowing. At the close the Firebird dives to the depths of being and then soars like some Zarathustra over humankind. I like it.

So, what is the bottom line? The Cala release helps to fill in a valuable aspect of Leopold Stokowski's musical legacy. In particular, to hear the difference Stokowski's improvements made in studio 8-H is really interesting. The Firebird is, as pointed out by David Hall, an excellent version. The sound of the Tchaikovsky 4th is not really as good as others, but that fact adds to our appreciation of Stokowski. So, while it might pose a reservation for some people, Stokowski fans need not hesitate. The other items? Well, the Rimsky-Korsakov is fascinating!! Instead of a solo trombone in the recitative depicting the priest's chanting, Stokowski had baritone Nicola Moscona sing a Russian Chant. The effect makes you think that this Stokowskization really is the way it should have been written. The Humoresque and Prokofieff are nice additions as well. I am glad that I don't have to make choices and can appreciate all of the recordings discussed herein.

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II

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