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CD Review

The Stokowski Sound

Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski - 1951
Leopold Stokowski Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski - 1950
Testament SBT1139 Monaural recordings

Now you can hear every one of Stokowski's six recordings of one of the Maestro's favorite pieces. Actually one of the six is a pirate from a live performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1962 (Frequenz 041.017). He also recorded "chunks" from the symphonic poem as far back as 1919. Anyway, less the "chunks" you can now hear any of them on CD.

His first complete recording was made in 1927. That CD (Biddulph WHL 010) also features a previously unissued alternate take of "The Sea and the Vessel of Sinbad" recorded in May whereas the rest was recorded in October. Side lengths were the determining factor in not going with the earlier take. Unfortunately, research has not yet confirmed the soloist(s?) in these two takes. It is interesting that the 1927 recording was made the year Stokowski was "on sabbatical" for a year.

In many ways this Philharmonia recording is the best of the bunch. This is certainly the best sounding incarnation of this recording. I had both the original Victor LP (1732) and the later Stokowski Society pressing (LS12). The bass line here is clear and firm, pure Stokowski. The strings are rich and deep, pizzicato is delicate and detailed. Even more than in the LPs the individual contributions are delightful. The soloist in this performance, Manoug Pankian, lingers a bit here and there, pulling out every ounce of music in every note. When reviewing the Stokowski Society release I noted that this recording, more than any of the others treated this piece almost like a concerto for orchestra. I am happy to see the principals named in the notes. The sound on this disc is monaural but what a sound! The right-to-left and back-to-front detail is involving and provides a sound stage that even the Phase-4 release lacked.

Nobody did this piece better than Stokowski. Of all the six recordings I would recommend at least three. First, this one. Second, the London Symphony recording from 1964 (and I wish Decca had not abandoned their Phase-4 remasterings) is the most exciting (London: 417-753 nla?). For pure dash, it has the most splash! Oddly, even though it sounds faster than this one, it is not. I used to use the LP to test out speakers. Anything that could handle the final moments of the first movement was indeed a good speaker. The CD transfer is pretty harsh, but so was the LP. Then comes the 1934 recording (Cala: 0521). That one sounds like Stokowski was preparing the Philadelphia Orchestra for Fantasia. The portamento in that recording has to be heard to be believed.

Listening as I type, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of this Philharmonia recording. Maybe it was something to do with returning to his homeland to record, but Stokowski certainly transmitted the magic on this occasion. There goes that soloist again, answered by the bassoon at the opening of the second movement. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a recording not just for Stokowski fans, but anyone who loves this war-horse should hear this recording.

On to Stravinsky. This is, more-or-less, the 1911 version. I qualify the statement because, as usual, Stokowski tampers with matters. Stokowski previously had recorded the entire piece ith.the.Phi adelphia Orchestra in 1937 and that recording is worth hearing just to hear the Philadelphia and their Maestro at peak form (RCA: 9026-61394-2). Comparisons show that the Philadelphia recording is more "orchestral" in atmosphere. The strings are richer. The later recording is closer balanced and the reduced size of "His" Orchestra allows an almost chamber music type atmosphere. The later one is also a couple minutes slower, but it sounds sharper in attack. Stokowski also recorded a Pétrouchka suite with the Berlin Philharmonic, but even though it is in stereo the effect just isn't as powerful. This 1950 recording brings out the festival atmosphere of the piece, the tragedy, too, more than any other recording I know. In it Stokowski treats the piece, like the Schéhérazade on this CD too, almost like a concerto. It is good to see the soloists listed in the insert notes. They certainly make this whole thing exciting.

The insert notes are wonderful. There's not much in them about the music per se, but there is a lot of information about Stokowski and his way with the music. All in all, kudos for everyone.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II