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CD Review

NYPO and Stokowski Volume 1

New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Cala CACD0533
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When I first started the LSSA the available Stokowski recordings were few and none of the older ones at all. Unless you wanted to comb through cut out bins, Salvation Army bins or go to places like Ars Antiqua that specialized in old discs you were just out of luck. Over the years the LSSA did acquire every LP that had ever been made or transferred from 78s. Of course these 'gems' came with surface noise that ranged from tolerable to downright unpleasant. The music was "there" but reminded me of listening to radio signals through my old Radio Shack transmitter.

I remember when I finally got hold of Columbia ML2167 and could listen to "The White Peacock". The mere title of Griffes' composition intrigued me. I was expecting something like Rimsky-Korsakov for some reason. Instead I heard something like a cross between Rimsky and Debussy. The sound, as usual for Columbia LPs, was not as rich or full as what Stokowski was getting from RCA. The playing of the New York Philharmonic (or the NYPSO as it was called then) was better than Stokowski's ad hoc orchestra mainly because it was a larger band. Still, the inherent sonic limitations from Columbia's recording process and the surface noise was an obstacle to appreciation… I felt I wasn't hearing all of the music.

This piece is the only one that has been previously released on CD from all of the recordings Stokowski made with the New York Philharmonic. It was one item on a limited edition disc from the Smithsonian (DC0013D) that also included recordings made by other conductors in the 40s. Interestingly, Mark Obert-Thorn referred to "The White Peacock" as Griffes' Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Now I could hear the music more fully and hear the music that was in the grooves of the LP. It was good.

So, when this disc (one of two available from the Leopold Stokowski Society in England) arrived I wondered if it could improve on the Smithsonian issue. To be short, it does in spades. I was simply stunned by the improvement since I couldn't see how it could be much better. The Stokowski Sound is now more apparent, the bass line is clear and firm, and there is air around the music and warmth that makes listening a pleasure. What is true of the sound in this case is true throughout.

This particular disc opens with one of the most hair-raising Dutchman I have ever heard. As Ed Johnson put it in an email to me, it will pin you to the back of your seat. The virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic here is just awesome. Stokowski makes sure that individual contributions are also brought out.

Ippolitov-Ivanov's music was a staple of Stokowski's repertoire from his 1909 conducting debut in Paris. The music certainly fits the "Stokowski Sound" and is provided all the sensuousness you could ever want. Again, the sound Cala has brought out on this disc is amazing. It is monaural but certainly not the less for it.

Whilst most of the music Stokowski recorded in 1947 and 1949 would be considered standard fare, the Messiaen is evidence of the fact that Stokowski championed contemporary music throughout his life, no matter where or when. Recording companies then, as now, preferred to produce more-of-the-same and I wonder how Stokowski managed to persuade them to go with this piece, which was certainly no 'warhorse'. Of this recording, Enos Shupp wrote in New Records, "Leopold Stokowski directs a performance of searching insight and intense feeling and power that reveals the meaning and recreates the substance of Messiaen's music." Whilst I am not really sure what he means by the 'meaning' and 'substance' of the music, I can attest to the intensity and power. The orchestra is just absolutely stunning in its virtuosity. Neat stuff.

Every time I hear Stokowski's Wagner I wish he'd had the chance to do one of the operas and I know he wanted to. Nobody does the excerpts better than Stokowski, then or now. My favorite is his recordings of the Magic Fire Music. The orchestral shimmer of the flames sends shivers up my spine. The sound here, again, allows us to hear how spectacular the New York Philharmonic was then.

With the exception of Sir John, most English conductors feel too "stiff upper lip" (an American phrase by the way) Boult, for example, generally leaves me cold. American conductors always feel like there is more fire in their belly, more passionate in interpretation. At least that was the way it was, now most of everyone sounds like they are directing traffic instead of conducting. Sorry for the editorial. Stokowski was English but perhaps his Americanization instilled the passion I hear in works like Greensleeves when he does it but otherwise it can sound, frankly, boring. This is a good performance and evidences The Stokowski Sound with the deep, rich bass underpinning the music. Neat stuff.

Stokowski recorded Tchaikovsky's Francesca three times and his 1958 recording with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra (the New York Philharmonic in summer garb) is justly famous. This one has some small cuts Stokowski made for some reason, but is as intense as the later one. Sound, again, is fantastic.

So, the first of the two Cala discs is warmly and strongly recommended. I have a suspicion the second will be too since I have sampled it. The discs represent almost all of Stokowski's recordings for Columbia during 1947 and 49. There were no recordings made in 1948 due to a ban related to union problems. For what it is worth, the order of the items is not chronological but arranged to provide a good program. It succeeds in many, many ways.

You can contact the Leopold Stokowski Society at:

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Copyright © 2002, Robert Stumpf II