The cover on this disc is the weirdest portrait of Stokowski that I have ever seen. It was done in 1934 by Dorothy Brett. She called it "Invocation". Stokowski looks like a first encounter of the third kind… or something like that. If you want some kind of proof that Stokowski attained his sound through some kind of occult powers this is the portrait is for you. I confess that I happen to like it.
Let's put the cards on the table at the outset. This disc is primarily for aficionados of Stokowski's art. When you think of Stokowski what usually comes to mind is the opening of "Fantasia" where The Maestro plays "his" orchestration of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue". I am but one of thousands of people who owe their love of classical music to that movie. If you are seeking an introduction to Stokowski's Bach transcriptions, however, you would probably want to start with one of his three stereo recordings (if you can find them). I would suggest, however, that another possible audience exists for this disc, those who are curious and want to learn about music. More on that anon.
In 1940 Stokowski left the Philadelphia Orchestra to strike out on his own. He formed the All-American Youth Orchestra, with the help of the State Department and Columbia Records. The orchestra did have some principals from Philadelphia, Sol Schoenbach on bassoon and Mason Jones on horn for example, but was primarily recruited from all over the country. They ranged in age from 17 to around 23. In fact, Warren Eason, once Vice President of the Leopold Stokowski Society of America, was a 17 year-old horn player who toured South America with the orchestra. He told me some wonderful stories like the time he took a robe to Stokowski's cabin and found him with a woman. Anyway, the following year the orchestra was reformed with some different players and toured the U.S. When they arrived in California they made recordings for Columbia, among which are the ones here.* Stokowski's Bach transcriptions had sold well for RCA and Columbia wanted some recordings of their own.
First, let me say that if anyone could orchestrate Bach it was Stokowski. ** Listening to these pieces, you know someone who knew the organ wrote them. This was Stokowski's original instrument when he came to the United States. In those early years he would frequently transcribe orchestral music for the organ. When it came to do the reverse, Stokowski created an organ-like sound from the orchestra.
Okay, I want to talk about this disc and the two-disc set of transcriptions Stokowski made for RCA with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Pearl 9098). For a focal point I will use the Toccata and Fugue. I was impressed, again and again, that both recordings, evoke the same organ-like sound from such different orchestras. In his 1927 recording the sound almost seems like a concerto for orchestra, each instrument like another stop pulled to create a new effect. By 1941 what we hear now has a ballet element to it. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Stokowski had recently done "Fantasia" and that this carried over. Like the "Fan-ta-sia" performance, the All-American Youth Orchestra is almost a minute slower than the Philadelphia recording. This offers an opportunity to linger and smell the flowers. On the other hand those young double bass players really dig into the music, even more so than in Philadelphia. The sound here is a bit more reverberant than on Pearl which may obscure some of the delightful details I hear in the 1927 recording. Anyway, both are excellent performances of what is probably Stokowski's most noted piece.
There are other things to note about this set. Komm Susser Tod has an almost Elgarian poignancy about it here. Also, this CD has the only recording Stokowski made of Andante Sostenuto, another gem in the crown. Oliver Daniel's biography noted about these recordings, "The overall quality of the records was bad…" *** You would hardly guess that from listening to this disc. There is slightly more treble than in Philadelphia, but it is very good and they have certainly captured the "Stokowski Sound". What is really astounding about this disc is that in a short time Stokowski took this young ensemble and transformed it into a professional orchestra that could rank with any in the world.
Over the years this period in Stokowski's career has been woefully neglected. It wasn't until the 1990s that the LSSA issued the first LPs. (Okay, if you want to be technical, there was an LP of Basil Rathbone doing "Peter and the Wolf" that was on a rare, "Special Products" put out by Columbia. Now on Avid 601.) We also issued a couple CDs, including a previously unreleased Brahms Symphony #1. It is good to have more documentation of this phase in The Maestro's life.
* In fact, recording locales are devilishly difficult to determine. Sources offer differing information. The second year's orchestra apparently made most of the recordings in LA and all but one of these items is from that period. The first year's group made recordings in Atlantic City, in South America and in New York. The Little Fugue was recorded in November 1940.
** Out of curiosity I pulled out Sir Henry Wood's orchestration of the Toccata and Fugue, played by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. What a difference. You'd almost not recognize the piece; it was obviously composed by someone who didn't appreciate the organ at all. The orchestration even includes xylophone and side snare drum! How could Toscanini berate Stokowski's work and conduct this tripe? A couple days later my friend Bill Pomputius was over for dinner and I played the two Stokowski recordings and then this one. At around 30 seconds into the piece Bill's face wrinkled into a wince that was screaming, "Turn it off! Turn it off!" I did.
This is what I was referring to when I talked about the opportunity to learn from listening to different recordings. Not only did I learn a lot about how the two recordings by Stokowski differed, I also took the opportunity to study the Wood transcription. Learning is good and beats the alternative every time.
*** Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View, p.436.
Copyright © 2001, Robert Stumpf II