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CD Review

* Eric Gruenberg, violin
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Cala CACD0536
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In his essay on Schéhérazade, published in Classical Music: The Essential Listening Companion, Steven Haller wrote, "If ever there were a score tailor-made for Stokowski, it's Schéhérazade…" He made an acoustic recording of the Festival at Baghdad in 1919. He recorded it five times and a live performance in Philadelphia in 1962 has circulated on various labels. As music director in Philadelphia he programmed it 35 times including a 1935 ballet version with the Ballet Russe.

Of the two recordings in Philadelphia (1927 on Biddulph 10 and the 1934 on CALA 241 and again on Andante 2985) the first is fairly straight forward but the latter, personally, is second only to this London Symphony release. This is Stokowski/Rimsky-Korsakov with all the portamento possible. It is as if he was preparing it for Fantasia, though that gig had not been discussed with Disney as yet.

Then we come to this 1964 recording made when the Mysterioso (as Bernstein called him) was 82 years young. This was Stokowski's first "Phase 4" recording. He had been told about the new process and, as usual, was fascinated by the possibility of making a recording that would make records 'sound better than live performances' as he put it. In the era of LP I would use that disc as a 'test' for speakers when I went to purchase them. If they could handle the climax at the close of the The Kalendar Prince they would do. This recording was released on the Jubilee series in 1988. The sound, unfortunately, was too bright and fierce. Later it was reissued on a Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts set that tamed the sound but somehow smoothed the edges to the point that the recording was dull. Now we have it in all the splendor and magnetic force that could be heard on the LP. In fact, this has been done using the latest 24 bit/ 96kHz technology.

This recording is, quite frankly the greatest Schéhérazade ever recorded by anyone ever. It is almost X-rated in its sensuousness. The Sultan, in the opening passage, comes in the door glaring; servants cower and are ready to do anything to appease him. But Schéhérazade comes in with the sweetest tones, played by Eric Gruenberg, bringing peace as he listens to her stories. And what stories she tells. This is MGM stuff, bigger than life just as this piece should be. The sound, as I have mentioned above, is demonstration quality. The rich, deep bass, the free bowing,that are hallmarks of the Stokowski Sound, has never been captured so fully, so well. Combining sound and performance you have a recording that should be in the collection of any serious collector of classical recordings.

As if that was not enough, the couplings are as valuable. The Marche Slave, taken from the concert celebrating the Mysterioso's 90th birthday, has the audience on its feet at the close. It is intense. I was literally on the edge of my chair. The sound is excellent.

Then we have the recording session of Schéhérazade. Stokowski is no nonsense as usual. (I recall a story told me by Jack Pfeiffer that at one recording session Stokowski used a bull horn to get things in gear.) At the same time, he talks to the orchestra like people talk to people. "Music is heart, is feeling, is passion, is impulse, all kinds of things…" he coaxes them when they are not playing as well as he wants It is fascinating.

"Emotion, life…or lifeless" as Stokowski said to Dan Rather in 1976. Here you have emotion.

Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II