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CD Review

The Planets

NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Cala CACD0526 - From 1943 & 1944 broadcasts
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Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Now, there's a marriage taken on the rebound. The orchestra was "created" for Arturo Toscanini. At least that's the story most people tell. In fact, what happened is more likely the result of a financial decision. Someone at the company figured out that they could save money by having their own house orchestra to do music for broadcasts. To justify the expense, they would broadcast symphony programs on a regular basis. For this event they would hire a 'myth in the making' to lead the orchestra. This is not to denigrate Toscanini's stature as a musician. On the other hand, we need to divest ourselves of the notion that there was a golden age in broadcasting where people held noble, virtuous standards that were more "artistic" than is the wont today. Watch "100 Men and a Girl" or Disney's cartoon of Mickey Mouse's orchestra, both which make fun of the business end of classical music.

So, Toscanini got pissed when he discovered the real reason behind the creation of "his" orchestra. The conductor threw down the gauntlet and NBC took him up on it. Imagine this scenario:

NBC Director: "Toscanini is threatening to quit."

Owner: "Again?!"

D: "Yeah, he's pissed because he discovered we use "his orchestra" to do commercials and other things. His Highness doesn't stick to rehearsal times, so they had to sneak out to do other gigs. Anyway, the Maestro found out and had a conniption fit."

O: "Well, hell, let him quit!"

D: "What??"

O: "Yeah. He's not the only crayon in the box. I heard about this guy, Stokowski, who made the film '100 Men and a Girl'. The movie was a big success. I read that he is without an orchestra at the moment. He's well known, too, isn't he?"

D: "You bet! Also, Toscanini hates Stokowski's guts. When he finds out what we've done he'll have another conniption fit! He'll come back begging."

So it goes. While this theory is contrary to what has become common knowledge, there is no proof that what has been assumed is always the truth. In fact, when Toscanini did return NBC also added to his chagrin by billing him second to Stokowski.

Anyway, Stokowski loved the orchestra he inherited. Toscanini had built one of the finest orchestras anywhere. They could play circles around most ensembles. It was a virtuoso, a Heifetz of orchestras. Stokowski loved the fact that he was going to reach an even larger audience. He loved the opportunity to experiment with sound. He had a stable of great musicians including Bob Bloom on oboe and the very young Earl Wild.

Well, Stokowski was an even bigger pain in the butt than Toscanini. Stokowski kept programming "modern" music like Holst's Planets. It was first heard in 1917, a youthful 26! Then there were the Stokowski Orchestrations, like the Debussy on this disc. Of course the Gould propaganda pieces are everything you would expect of such ilk, but it is nice to be reminded that there were no "good old days".

This recording of Holst's best known* piece is an example of what Stokowski did with the orchestra. Listen to any broadcasts by the two giants of the time and you will immediately know which is which is Stokowski and which is Toscanini. Select material that was common to both… okay, that may not be possible, but I am almost certain that Toscanini did a Beethoven 5th as did Stokowski. Stokowski brought out more of a bass line, there is more reverberation and air around the music. On the other hand, Stokowski realized what a virtuoso he had in this instrument. He drove the NBC orchestra as did its creator, Toscanini. In Philadelphia Stokowski had an instrument that was great, but the NBC had a precise, sharp edge to their playing. Stokowski created an atmosphere that had more tension than he generally brought out in Philadelphia. It seems like Stokowski wanted to produce a richer, darker sound in Philadelphia. In New York there is still the "Stokowski Sound" but it is different in emphasis in the areas I have touched on.

Consider the fact that when you listen to this disc you are hearing the music in a much better way than did the original radio audience… even if they were able to receive the broadcast. I first heard this performance on a Japanese Leopold Stokowski Society LP several years ago. The sound was thin and shrill. Someone spoke lines between the orchestral music. When I was told that the Stokowski Society in England was planning to release this piece I shuddered. My fears were dispersed as soon as I listened to the opening moments. The spoken commentary was gone. As for the sound, what wonders have been wrought on this recording! It is fantastic, and not just for the time. Mars has all the deep, hostile tread you might imagine from someone who wrote it during the First World War. The orchestral details are a delight.

So, how does it compare to Stokowski's stereo recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (on EMI 65423) ? Frankly, it is far superior. First, sound is better on the monaural recording. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra recording always struck me as being a disappointment. It seemed distant and the relief favored the brass at the expense of the strings. This live broadcast has a deeper bass line, the relief still has brass, but not at the expense of the strings. The performance in New York is one of the best I have heard of this piece, even if Sir Adrian Boult suggested that Stokowski's 'Planets' "… wasn't what we're used to." [From the notes by Edward Johnson] The opening pizzicatos from the strings snap and snarl at you. There is a sense of depth to the sound, too, with air around the music. The EMI release (especially the CD, but the LP was not much better) for some reason obscures some inner details heard with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The whole performance seems faster than the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra one, but in fact the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast is slower in almost every part of the Planets. The tread of Saturn's "Old Age" is a noble one, not a weary one as in Los Angles. Neptune is a mysterious as a Twilight Zone episode, but also a sensuous, downright erotic world. This sense is not as present in the EMI CD. After a lot of listening (I also pulled out Boult's and Andrew Davis' recordings) I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the finest performances I have heard.

The notes, which I have already referred to, are by the foremost Stokowski specialist in the world, Ed Johnson and offer some really interesting details about Stokowski's performance.

The Debussy items are equally of interest. Here the slightly dryer acoustic of Studio 8H (which, by the way, is the studio later used by David Letterman when he was at NBC) helps, once again, offer some subtle details that are not as clear in comparable Philadelphia recordings of the same time. Still, this sound is much fuller than what Toscanini got from the same orchestra. Nobody, but nobody did Debussy better than Stokowski and it is nice to have these lagniappes appended to the Holst. The Gould pieces are marches written to celebrate "our allies in the War… Russia and China" It is banal music. It is not why anyone would buy this disc, but some people may find this kind of music more to their liking than do I.

So, I highly recommend this recording and not just to fans of Stokowski. I think that admirers of Holst will find the performance fascinating, too. For Stokowski fans it is a must have.

*To those who are interested in exploring other Holst music, I strongly recommend Richard Hickox's fine collection on Chandos CHAN9270.

Post Script: I also pulled out the EMI Japanese Import I discovered in a CD store, Street Side Records, that went under years ago. Last good place ever to be in Columbus, Ohio. That disc is significantly better than the EMI release. There is more of a bass line, a darker hue; the sound is deeper and richer. The later "FDS" release didn't follow Stokowski's own, written instructions as to where to add what sonic effects. If we can convince EMI to release this, yet again, in 20-bit format my opinion might change. Still, when Saturn is about 2 minutes faster in LA than NYC… I prefer the latter.

Copyright © 2000, Robert Stumpf II