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CD Review

Stokowski Conducts

The Columbia Stereo Recordings

a Shirley Verret-Carter, mezzo soprano
b Glenn Gould, piano
1 Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1960)
2 American Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1966-67)
3 National Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1976-77)
Sony 88691-97115-2
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The first thing you need to know about Stokowski is that he was a very sensual man. I have read every biography written about the man and talked with people who knew him and worked with him. Not one of them really felt they had a "friendly" relationship; that was also part of his sensuality. These thoughts came to mind listening to the Wagner Tristan und Isolde music but it really applies to all of his recordings. They have that swing that Ellington suggested was essential.

In the early to mid-Sixties and then at the end of his recording career, which spanned 60 years, Stokowski recorded for Columbia. They had worked together previously in the early 40s in conjunction with Stokowski's All-American Youth Orchestra's tour of South America and the U.S. producing experimental LPs but released on 78s (much of which is available from the Music and Arts label via The Leopold Stokowski Society of America).

When Stokowski returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1960 Columbia Records was recording for them. The notion of recording Stokowski, in stereo, with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a given so far as Columbia was concerned as was the fact that said recordings would include Bach. The sound achieved was everything you could ask for. The Stokowski Sound was full, there was air around the notes and a transparency that allowed for delicious details. The Wagner was also a given and the de Falla another gem. Five stars for these two.

Anyway, the day of the recording serious problems arose. Stokowski insisted on recording the Bach music first which meant many of the musicians would be sitting around. getting paid for nada, until the other items were recorded. That was resolved but then after the recordings were laid to tape Stokowski was found in the control booth fiddling with the knobs. Recording engineers went nuts. The results, however, are fantastic. The sound has all of the Stokowski richness and body. The Bach, in particular, is fantastic with amazing solos from Kincaid and Brusilow. Stokowski recorded the de Falla several times and this may be his finest. What I kept noting as I was listening was Duke Ellington's comment, "if it ain't got that swing, it don't mean a thing." Stokowski had swing.

Then we come to the Beethoven "Emperor" with Gould. Gould had an almost religious admiration for Stokowski and specifically asked that they do this piece for his set of the concertos. Stokowski had formed the American Symphony Orchestra and recruited some of the finest young players in the country. I have a DVD of Stokowski rehearsing this orchestra and it you can actually hear the Stokowski Sound emerge as they come together. Stokowski complained about this particular recording himself saying that the day of the recording too much time was spent placing the piano, orchestra, etc. and not enough time spent rehearsing. It is slow, due in part to the recording studio, and doesn't have the "swing". Three stars.

The Ives LP, however, was a masterpiece. Stokowski had a hand in constructing the score itself from scraps Ives left around and used two additional conductors in the world premiere and recording. Columbia was not about to pay for the recording without help and so the Samuel Rubin Foundation stepped in. This has "swing" and Stokowski probably helped Bernstein and others add Ives to their repertoire. If you haven't got this recording it really IS one that belongs in the collection of any serious library. Five stars.

A decade passed before Stokowski worked with Columbia again. In 1976 he signed a six-year contract, taking him to his 100th birthday. This time the orchestra was the National Philharmonic, a group of hand-picked stellar musicians in the London area. You can see Stokowski rehearsing the orchestra in his recording of the Sibelius 1st symphony in a 60 Minutes broadcast with Dan Rather. As one writer put it, Stokowski approached the podium slowly but once he started working with the orchestra years melted away and he was once again the man in charge.

The recording of the Bizet pieces brought out the best in Stokowski. You would never believe that this was coming from the hands of a 94 year old. There was some critical comment that these pieces play themselves and that Stokowski had little to add. As Donald Pleasence put it, in that Dan Rather interview, "have Stokowski stand outside and see what happens." This is intense and sensual, Five Stars.

The next release, the Stokowski transcriptions, is simply amazing. It was the first disc I pulled out an put on. The opening Flight of the Bumblebee sounds more like The Swarm. The sound is detailed and rich. Here Stokowski is leading what is essentially his music. One critic opined that if Debussy had orchestrated Clair de Lune it would've sounded like this. This is probably my favorite disc in the ten disc set. Five stars.

Then we come to the Sibelius recording mentioned above. Watching the rehearsal with Stokowski is amazing. His hands are almost translucent as they weave their musical magic. Bernstein once referred to Stokowski as the "mysterioso" and some musicians have opined that they really weren't sure how it was that Stokowski got them to produce the sound they were able to for his recordings. "The beginning is magical. Across a soft drumroll, a clarinet sings a long melody, dark in mood, and in slow descent." (From The Symphony by Michael Steinberg.) The recording captures all the drumroll better than in most recordings, hovering in the background to the melancholy plaint. You are in the Finn's land and I recall photos of Stokowski visiting with Sibelius. As for The Swan of Tuonela I have all four of his recordings and if I have a slight preference for the one from 1957 it is because of Mitch Miller's playing. As for recording, however, this one is more transparent and the feathery chill of the violins adds to the bleakness of the whole. Five Stars.

The Tchaikovsky release contains all the usual Stokowski treatment and I find the music somewhat tiring, not the best Tchaikovsky. So if I give the disc Four Stars it has more to do with my taste than the recording itself.

When the Mendelssohn/Bizet LP was released I was disappointed. Somehow the Stokowski Sound was missing…there was no firm, rich bass sound. The same was true of the first CD release (and all of these have seen previous CD incarnations so this must be a reincarnation). It seems to be better here and I was about to make that claim based on A/B comparisons when I heard from Ed Johnson (who wrote the fine notes that come with the set) who tells me that the new Sony basically just copies them to a digital audio workstation editor and re-couples them. That may be but I detected a slightly louder recording level than the earlier disc. The bottom line is that I sense a slight improvement which could be due to simply dubbing them at a slightly higher level. While Stokowski did record the Bizet previously Mendelssohn is not a composer for which The Maestro was known. These were Stokowski's last recordings (though the Brahms was released after this disc and I recall reading that Stokowski didn't use any of his unusual seating for the sessions. Four Stars.

So, Stokowski's penultimate recording was the Brahms and here the Stokowski Sound and interpretation is back. Whenever I decide I want to study this symphony it is Stokowski's recording I pull out. It is more autumnal than most recordings but I think that fits the music just fine. In fact, that performance is not unlike the Tragic Overture in the overall feel of things. This is one of the finest recordings of this music that there is. Five Stars.

The bottom line is that you can get these discs for around $3 per. It's too bad they didn't provide a magnifying glass with the set because the reproduced LP notes will give you a charley horse of the brain if you try to read them sans one. Overall I strongly recommend the set unless you already have all the recordings from previous incarnations. If you do you might want to have them all collected together in the box. Otherwise it makes a nice gift for other music lovers in your life.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Stumpf II