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CD Review

The Stokowski Sound


*Alexander Hilsberg, violin
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Cala CACD0521
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For those who skip to the last line first: this CD is possibly one of the single most important ones a 'Stokowski fan' should own. It features the Maestro and HIS orchestra at their peak. The sound is wonderfully captured by Mark Obert-Thorn. Now back to the regular review.

Leopold Stokowski loved Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite and the "Nutcracker" and recorded them both five times in his long life. There is also a CD from a live performance of Schéhérazade with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1962. If the length of this essay is devoted more so to Schéhérazade, it is simply because I prefer that piece. In fact, I happen to love it, especially in Stokowski's hands.

The "Nutcracker" is Stokowski's second recording. In writing this review I listened to the 1926 recording, the 1939 "Fantasia" CD and the 1973 London Symphony recording (the 1950 one is not currently on CD). I discarded the London Symphony recording as a referent because the technology separating the recordings is almost 40 years. To a certain extent it is not possible to separate the recording process from the performance itself. The two are so inherently related that it is a symbiotic synergy which exits between them. So, after a certain point of separation in time of recording, comparison becomes increasingly impossible. On the other hand, the other three are close in time. Oddly, the least listenable is the one from Disney. You would think that using the newest technology available at the time that the "Fantasia" release would sound best. Actually, if you want the "Fantasia" Sound, this 1934 will be better. do not know how (I almost typed who) it got screwed up, but these Disney discs are simply not listenable. The 1926 recording, in comparison with the others, is a lot more listenable than the Disney, but not as magical as this Cala release. The sound on the earlier releases is dryer but provides a slightly more detailed ambiance, which is particularly telling in pizzicato moments. Over-all, however, this 1934 recording is the best 'historic' Stokowski recording. It has it all, excitement, warm sound, as if they were rehearsing to make "Fan-ta-sia".

The two 'fillers' are icing on the cake, or perhaps more accurately between the cakes. This is vintage Stokowski transcription and performance. The earlier recording sounds a bit more grainy, but that is to be expected. Let's be honest, you won't buy this disc for these pieces, but it's nice to have them along.

Some years ago, a member of the L.S.S.A. wrote and asked if the 1934 Schéhérazade had ever been transferred to LP. I told him no, of course but promised to make him a cassette from the society's 78s. Well, many hours later, many, many hours later, about a week later, I finally finished transferring those sides. I did this by making simple 'takes' on a cassette. Then I went through and, using the timing on the cassette recorder, then spliced the sides together. Then I listened to the whole thing while making a dub. I still have that cassette, and I confess I fell in love with this particular recording due to the time I put into that job. I recalled thinking that the whole thing was as if Stokowski was rehearsing to make this for "Fantasia". The swoons in th strings are more accentuated, as if they are leaning into the phrases, than in his earlier, 1927, recording.

Well, anticipation was high as I put this CD in the tray and pressed th play button. So often memory proves to have been false and things aren't nearly as good as recalled. This time, however, all my many hours making that cassette for someone was rewarded. Everything was as good as I remembered; in fact, it is better than I remembered!! As early as 20 seconds into it, you can sense that this Schéhérazade is more theatrical than other recordings, by even Stokowski's standards. The orchestral entry after the opening violin solo is perfectly timed, then come the swooning strings. The use of portamento throughout this recording is greater than in any of his others. Hilsberg has a darker, more mysterious sound than in the other Stokowski recordings. Attacks are sharper than any of the others. The sound is fuller than in the 1927 recording. Once your ears adjust, there is a nice sound stage wit depth to it and clear placement of instruments. The sound is warm with air around the music and a natural decay to the sound. The opening of the second movement is riveting, an underlying tension sleeps in the music. The solo bassoon melody, answered by the oboe, is delicate and dark. In fact, all of the solos in this recording are wonderfully captured by Mark Obert-Thorn's excellent work. On to the final movement. Here the tension builds as Stokowski strings the music taut, then tauter until the final release which hits like an orgasm. Long after the violin's last whisper, the music lingers like an afterglow.

What we have here is the Philadelphia Orchestra and their creator, Leopold Stokowski, in top form. The reproduction of that occasion is little short of amazing. Let's remember that by 1934 Stokowski and HIs orchestra were the best in the world, according to no less than Rachmaninoff. The soloists are names people bring up as evidence that there was an Age of Giants in classical music. Hilsberg at violin, Bloom on English horn, Kincaid, Mason Jones, and I fear I have probably left out others that I am ashamed I missed. By this time the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski lived in a symbiotic relationship. This recording of Schéhérazade captures that moment.

Okay, but how does this particular recording stack up with all his others? Well, four studio and one live recording are (or were) available on CD. A look at the comparative timings is interestingly am coming to the conclusion that this recording is arguably the finest ever made.

Leopold Stokowski first conducted Schéhérazade with the Cincinnati Orchestra on February 18 and 19 in 1910, at the age of 28. (For this information and much other in this essay I am thankful to John Hunt's Discography and Concert Register available from the Leopold Stokowski Society.) His first recording of the first recording of the entire piece was in 1927 (On Biddulph WHL 010). There were some acoustic 'takes' from various sections, the earliest in 1919. The timings on the CDs in our collection are:


As can be seen, timings for the first movement are all over the place. Second movement timings are consistent in '34, '62 and '73, but several seconds slower in the Phase 4 issue. The third is, again, all over the place, but the fourth movement is fairly close in all but the '27 recording. The fact that the '27 recording is much faster throughout is due to the necessity of getting the piece on two sides rather than three.

How do they compare otherwise? Well, the soloist is one important factor. In 1927 the soloist is not named. I have done some research and am unable to confirm anything. The concert master for the 1927 season was Mischa Mischakoff, but that is no guarantee that he is the soloist. Stokowski regularly shifted the responsibility for that position. Whoever it is, it is exciting, but the slightly dryer sound on this recording results in a sound which is thinner. To complicate matters, Stokowski did not conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1927-28 season, except for recordings made. So, the possibility that it was the concert master is even more open to question. Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra did record the first movement of Schéhérazade in May of 1927, but the later, October, take was used for the release. Wh was the soloist there? (Also, the May recording is more expansive, at 9:58. Frankly, I prefer the earlier recording for several reasons. So the Biddulph disc is definitely work having to listen to Stokowski 'in rehearsal'.) Finally, I worked on the assumption that Stokowski had probably played the piece in public several times in 1927 as a kind of rehearsal for recording. In fact, he programmed it only once, in January, but there was the May recording which probably used some rehearsal time. Still it could be argued that apparently they went in 'cold' and made it. It is certainly exciting.

As a segue, the Cala, 1934 recording of Schéhérazade has on its cover a reproduction of the art work on the 1927 set of 78s. (With, alas, no reference to the soloist.) After that point contrast rather than comparison is the main thing to notice. Any notion that once you've heard a Stokowski recording you 've heard them all is belied with these two first efforts. Alexander Hilsberg, in 1934, plays as if he is making love to his instrument. It is full of passion. The closing moments of the final movement are achingly beautiful. The recording here is fuller than in '27. Interestingly, again, there are not any particularly more frequent live performances prior to this '34 recording. Well, really, I think you know I happen to love this recording and think it should be in everyone's collection. While slower than '27 it still has sharp attacks and God I love the portamento.

On to 1962. There is no mention of the soloist on the CD, but thanks to Mark Obert-Thorn I found out that the concert master in '62 was Anshel Brusilow (but, again, that is no guarantee he is the soloist, though it is likely). Note that the first movement in this live performance times in close to the '27 recording. In fact, the timings here (which I had to get by putting the disc in and then checking the timings) provide evidence of how Stokowski might have played it when live in Philadelphia. The sound here is okay, but nothing special. It seems to be monaural but it does have some ambiance that suggests early stereo. Damn't why doesn't the Philadelphia Orchestra market this and the other Stokowski '60s performances??? I'd love to hear the Sibelius 4th!!! Over-all, while this is an exciting performance, the sound mitigates against an unqualified recommendation. Besides, how the hell would you find a copy?

Okay, on to the final two recordings, both of which are on CD. The 1965 Phase 4 recording was my first. I don't know why I picked that LP. At the time classical music was new to me. For some reason, though, it was the recording I purchased when I added my first Schéhérazade. The CD transfer is pretty rugged with a whooliness around the loud passages. It is, however, better than in a boxed set issued a few years ago by a book company. That one tamed the edges and the performance. I was stunned at how so different a remastering changed the impact of a recording. I am anxiously awaiting the new issue and have my fingers crossed. (By the way, back in the day of LP I used this Stokowski recording to 'test out' speakers to see if they could handle the closing of the second section.) Eric Gruenberg is the soloist and he is in the same league as Hilsberg. This is one of the finest recordings of the piece ever, even better than the 1934 recording because of the added dimensions stereo adds. It is the slowest of all of them, but damn I love it. Attacks are sharp, portamento is used but more sparingly than in '34. You really ought to look for the CD out and hold off until I review the new issue. The previous re-release of the Beethoven 9th was a disaster.

Finally, 1973. This recording was released on an early RCA CD, but the opening 2:00 were in monaural, which became obvious when someone hit the stereo button. It also appeared in some kind of Twilight Zone CD, the story of which is on the Leopold Stokowski Society's CDiscography. The sound in the latest RCA incarnation is warmer, less wholly. Gruenberg, however, does not seem as involved this time. The attacks are less sharp, things sound more 'rounded'. The London issue can be tiring on the ears unless you watch the volume level. This is not a problem with the RCA issue. In fact, the sound is not a problem. Still, I'd love to hear how this might be transformed if we were to get a 20-Bit issue.

Well, the purpose of this essay was not to make any recommendations for your purchase. I have tried to clearly lay out the comparisons and contrasts in the various Stokowski recordings of Schéhérazade. I would strongly encourage you to get the Cala issue. This is arguably one of the most important historic issues period. For Stokowski aficionados it is a must. If you want stereo you'll probably have to wait for a reissue of the Phase 4 disc since I think the older one is no longer available. If you find it in a cut out bin snatch it up. The RCA disc is only available as part of a 14 disc set, at the moment, so that will likely dissuade some people (don't let it, the set is invaluable).

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II