The last time these performances were reissued, they came with an unusual coupling in Thomas Canning's Fantasy on a Hymn Tune by Justin Morgan. As issued by Countdown Media, that piece has now ended up with Stoki's deliciously unidiomatic Wagner on Everest SDBR-3070, which I have reviewed previously (and where it remains just as unusual a coupling). That means that this disc becomes – as with the original LP – an all-Strauss program of distinction.
For a conductor who loved flashy and gaudy scores, there is precious little Strauss in the Stokowski discography. The orchestra is basically the New York Philharmonic under an alias, since I suspect that they would have been under contract with Columbia Records. In 1958, when these tone poems were recorded, this was just as much Dimitri Mitropoulos' orchestra as it was the young Leonard Bernstein's. They had jointly shared the directorship of the Philharmonic for the 1957-1958 season, and it was the older man who had the stronger reputation in the music of Strauss. I give all this background because of the works recorded here, only Don Juan would be recorded by Bernstein with these forces. Therefore, this disc allows us to hear one of the world's great orchestras in music that became rarer recorded fare for them later.
That's not to say Stokowski sounds like either of those great conductors, he sounds like Stokowski through and through. Till Eulenspigel is a color-drenched adventure, full of musical twists and turns that the old man seems to enjoy as much as his players. The brass is confident and full, the winds are frothy and alert. The whole performance is a treat, both for the virtuoso playing and for the clear sense of fun on the podium. Ditto for a suitably exotic Dance of the Seven Veils. This is the kind of music that you'd have expected Stokowski to excel at, and he doesn't disappoint. Not the most subtle rendition, but very exciting.
Were it not for less appealing sound quality, this Don Juan would probably rank with the best. As it stands, the sonic picture is still a little harsh for repeated listening. There's nothing much else to complain about, though. Stokowski blazes through the piece at daring tempos, realizing the full potential of this magnificently opulent score. The New York players rise to the occasion with some exceptional ensemble work. I prefer the CD issue, which can be had from Amazon, but iTunes will also provide a download for those so inclined. Shorn of the very beautiful but rather oddly placed Canning piece of CDs past, this program becomes essential listening for Stokowski and Strauss fans alike.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman