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CD Review

Experimental Stereo Recordings from 1952

Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (20 November 1952)
* Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík (6 December 1952)
Music and Arts 1190
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There are several things that impress me with this release, one of which is how Stokowski manages to get "The Stokowski Sound" from an orchestra in so little time. I have heard recordings with this orchestra from around this time and never sounded this rich, this good. I saw a video once of Stokowski rehearsing a German orchestra in one of the Bach transcriptions. Though Stokowski spoke in German (and therefore I couldn't understand what he was saying) the words were few but within minutes the sound of the orchestra underwent a metamorphosis. I know that part of it is a matter of seating (which is discussed in the notes) but it is also the free-bowing and building the sound from the basses up (as Walter Hendl put it) .

Another thing that impresses me is that this Stokowski Tchaikovsky 5 is possibly the best I have heard. I have compared it with four other live recordings in the collection and the three commercial ones. Quite frankly, Stokowski "live" was more exciting than in the studio when it comes to this particular piece. The audience applause at the end of the first movement is an indication of the occasion.

The performance sounds as if the orchestra was playing the piece "by the seat-of-their-pants" and enjoying the experience. There are so many things to enjoy in this performance (the solo horn in the second movement, the timpani that roars forth, the feathery strings… all excellently captured on the tape) that I simply don't notice in the other recordings. It passes what I call the "toe-tapping test". That is, I find myself swaying to the music and stopping to enjoy it.

The notes go into some detail about the source of the sound for this release and that is yet another thing that impresses me. Stokowski, as always, was interested in experiments with sound and Bert Whyte suggested such an experiment using a two-track tape machine. Mark Obert-Thorn worked with the tapes (provided by Edward Johnson who was given the tapes after the death of Jack Baumgarten) and the result is nothing less than phenomenal. It sounds significantly better than the monaural 1953 commercial release.

Stokowski made it a habit of including a "new" piece of music when he toured and we have here Jacob Avshalomov's (b. 1919) The Taking of T'ung Kuan. The insert notes include a lengthy discussion of the event by the composer (who didn't approve of the performance) and about the music itself. While I am glad to have heard it I can't really suggest you will find anything memorable about it.

The Kubelík lagniappe is nice to have but the main course is the reason for sitting down to a meal and it is worth it here. If you haven't heard Stokowski doing the Tchaikovsky 5th live (and there is also an excellent version with the American Symphony Orchestra from a 1967 performance on Music and Arts 944) you simply must hear this.

Copyright © 2006, Robert Stumpf II