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CD Review

The Poem of Ecstasy

Houston Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Everest SDBR-3032
Find it at Amazon

For someone who reportedly didn't like working with Everest Records, Leopold Stokowski certainly put his best foot forward for his recorded efforts. Scriabin is one of those composers that fit this conductor like a glove, and everything goes very smoothly. The coupling is rare enough to make up for the short playing time, and collectors should find much to enjoy here.

The Houston Symphony won't win any awards here; even the first-desk playing is a touch rougher than it really ought to be. Somewhat harsh recorded sound adds to this impression, but there is no question that these forces do the very best they can. And Stokowski is of course on magical form, leading his charges in a high-voltage take on this richly colored music. If I maintain a slight preference for the conductor's Decca effort, the vintage Czech Philharmonic plays a big part in that. Frankly, this doesn't wow me like the maestro's Wagner, but it is worth having as the ten-thousandth proof that Stokowski could get whatever sound he wanted. This isn't music that you'd expect could survive whilst being coarsely played, but the old man shows us otherwise. Worth hearing

The Azerbaijan Muğam is new to me, and so is the composer. The notes – which are original – show that there was almost no information available on the Soviet composer. He was accomplished though, both in absorbing the native music of Azerbaijan, and also in pleasing the government; this work won a Stalin Prize in 1949. Leopold Stokowski and these Houston forces introduced the piece to America a decade later. I can only assume that this is the first recording of it, certainly in the West, and it's had very little fanfare since. This is the kind of thing that no conductor ever did better. It's full of lushly colorful motifs and exotic sounds, with a piano solo thrown in the middle. The Houston Symphony displays the same mix of commitment and drive with some rough ensemble here and there. God only knows if this is considered "good" music by the professionals, but it's a riot to listen to, even if it arguably packs too much into its 13 minutes. Speaking of what God knows, he alone could tell you if this was ever reissued on CD, or where to find it if it was. So sit back and enjoy. Get it from Amazon, or iTunes for a download. Countdown Media, you have my thanks again.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman