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CD Review

Stokowski Studio Recordings

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* New York City Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
10 December 1944 & 25 July 1945
Cala/Leopold Stokowski Society CD0506 Mono
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Richard Wagner

  • Rienzi: Overture ('27)
  • Tannhäuser: Overture & Venusberg Music ('30)
  • Die Meistersinger: Prélude to Act III ('31)
  • Tristan und Isolde: Symphonic Synthesis ('32)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Pearl 9238 Mono
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What we have here are two indispensable yet very different recordings using different remastering techniques. The sound difference between these discs could not be more pronounced, yet each is excellent and will reward the listener. On top of that, you have Leopold Stokowski in repertoire that was among his best.

I received the Cala disc first and was somewhat leery of what I might hear. I have had some reservations in the past about the remastering of the Cala discs. They reminded me of some of the gimmickry we heard in early "electronic stereo" LPs (though, to be honest, not that bad). On the other hand, I had no reservations about the general appeal of the contents of this disc.

Well, the good news is there is no bad news. The sound here is full with an atmosphere which does have a somewhat stereophonic cast to it. The sound is not at all tubby and has a firm bass to it. Furthermore, inner detail in the Tchaikovsky is fantastic!! From the opening notes of the bassoon you can hear almost every individual instrument as it contributes to the performance. The strings in the Pathétique are classic Stokowski, making the most of free bowing to add to the effect. I heard from Ed Johnson, in England, that the sound was taken directly from tapes the Stokowski Society purchased from RCA. There was no doctoring of the sound in any way. Well, somebody deserves some credit for making such a wonderful master from the beginning. Perhaps it is the CD format that brings the most from it. I have also learned that this same performance, differently coupled, is slated for release from Pearl, transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn. I am anxious to hear how it sounds by comparison not to mention the opportunity to hear Stokowski perform Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead which will also be on that disc.

Death and Illumination (as Stokowski insisted on calling it) is less successful. The sound here is slightly drier but I found this the case with most New York City Symphony recordings Stokowski made. A better performance and recording can be heard (if you can find it) in RCA's two-disc set: Legendary Strauss Recordings. In that set is the 1934 Philadelphia recording Stokowski made and it is expertly remastered by Ward Marston. Still, you should have this disc for the Tchaikovsky and the chances are you will not find the RCA (what a shame).

The performances? Well, nobody did Tchaikovsky better than Stokowski (or worse in some cases, like the 4th Symphony). What you will hear is a conductor who interprets the symphony in light of the fact that the composer wrote ballets. You will not hear the sharp attacks as in Furtwängler's recording (who hears the symphonies as symphonic by comparison and is on Biddulph WHL 006-7). Still, Stokowski is not lame in his approach anymore than was Tchaikovsky in Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. I know this sounds a bit nebulous, but unless I can think of a better way to describe how two of my favorite recordings of this symphony differ, that's it. What we have here are two very different but equally valid interpretations of this work. Which goes to prove that a great work of music can bear many views.

The Wagner disc, like the Furtwängler Pathétique mentioned above, was remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. What we have here, recorded between 15 and 20 years earlier, is a recording which immediately speaks of a different philosophy of remastering. My initial comment while comparing the two was, "This is a more honest sound." What I mean by that is not necessarily a judgment in quality. As I mentioned about the Cala, there is a sense of a lot of reverberation having been added. Here we have a sound that probably more accurately reflects what a 78 might sound like in the best of all possible worlds. The Stokowski Sound is definitely discernible, just as in the Cala, with the seamless flow of the strings and the clear, firm bass. It is a slightly cleaner remastering, with just a bit more inner detail. What is interesting is that there is also a back-to-front perspective in the sound. At this point we might ask: is it Stokowski or is it Obert-Thorn? I think it is Obert-Thorn taking what Stokowski left and restoring it to a paradigm of remastering 78s. You might discern slightly more surface noise than you would hear on a Dutton release, but you would have to be really picky (read anal retentive [is there a hyphen in that?]) to let if keep you from appreciating the music. In fact, in the Tannhäuser I cannot hear any surface noise at all. Add to that the fact that in Mark's transfer there is air around the music than in Dutton's work and Mark wins by a knock out.

The performances? These recordings are the first electrical ones Stokowski made of these works. If Stokowski was a great Tchaikovsky interpreter, he was no less so in Wagner. I would recommend any of his Tristan und Isolde recordings to a tyro interested in learning more about the opera. True story: Some years ago I got a call from Sylvan Levin. He had talked with Leonard Bernstein, who was about to perform and record Tristan und Isolde. He wanted a cassette of Stokowski's Symphonic Synthesis to listen to before doing the work. I made the cassette at home and sent it to him. I never got a thank you note, but did get a handsome check for the work. Anyway, if that is not sufficient evidence of the quality of Stokowski's work in this piece, then you are just going to refuse to be educated.

As I have stated in other reviews, listening to Stokowski's Wagner works makes you wish he had had the chance to record a complete opera. My experience in listening to Wagner operas is admittedly narrow. Still, I have listened to Boehm's work and Barenboim. I can say that Stokowski catches the magic, the sweep, the mystery of the Wagner World. God, I wish Stokowski had the chance….I am sure he did, too.

Anyway, back to this recording. Different, later recordings of the Tannhäuser and Tristan are available on Pearl 9448 and 9486 respectively. Those discs were remastered by Ward Marston. Any comparison, however, is really negated by both the later dates and different remasterings. I can say that this disc offers slightly clearer inner detail and firmer bass line. Ward and Mark's philosophies in transfers are not significantly different, but I have to confess I slightly prefer Mark's sound.

So, the bottom line? I would not want to be without either of the discs reviewed here. Both offer an exciting opportunity to experience the genius that was Stokowski.

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II