What was "hi-fi" in 1958? Stereo certainly. What was connoisseur hi-fi? The answer, probably not on the tip of your tongue, comes from the vaults of EMI: "Full Dimensional Sound" recordings, digitally remastered from the original session tapes. And who better to lead an early stereophile recording than the master of orchestral color (and batty section arrangements), Maetro Stokowski.
The result is not what I had hoped.
Stokowski drives the Houston forces hard in the "Carmina." The ensemble barely hangs together in places - difficult to forgive in music that is so elementally expressed. The chorus sounds thin and detached, with the piped-in sound of studio back-ups. A rather dampened acoustic is probably to blame. The effect highlights the singers' twangy diction, an experience I liken to Bing Crosby singing "Ave Maria." Of the soloists, only soprano Virginia Babikian brings a confident instrument to bear - the high tessitura of "Blanziflor et Helena" is carried with impressive volume and ease.
The "Firebird" suite fares better. With the Berlin Philharmonic, Stokowski has more control of the sound he is producing, yet he seems defeated in his quest for atmosphere. Much of it disappears in the cavernous nooks of the hall. His usual flair for spectacle is also quashed. Rhythms in Kashchei's "Infernal Dance" are compromised by the harried tempo, diminishing the jabbing brass and percussion. You are better off with Doráti's Mercury Living Presence account. That recording, made only a year later (1959), retains an astonishing brissance. It also includes the entire ballet and a clutch of other Stravinsky pieces. As far as Carmina Burana is concerned, I recommend the Grammy-winning performance by the San Francisco Symphony on London; it's demonstration quality.
Copyright © 1997, Robert J. Sullivan