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CD Review

The Stokowski Sound

Phase 4

  • Claude Debussy:
  • La Mer (1970)
  • Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1973)
  • The Engulfed Cathedral [orch. Stokowski] (1966)*
  • Maurice Ravel: Daphnis & Chloé: Suite #2 (1970)
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
*New Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
London "Phase Four" 455152-2
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

This disc replicates most of what was previously released on London 417152. That said, all comparison ends there.

I have a lot of theories. Most of them are half-baked…or, so I have been told. I share them with victims who happen to sit too long at my park bench. I am of the opinion that conductors who have crossed the ocean in a ship will impart to Debussy's "La Mer" a sense which those who have not, cannot. Imagine the feel of the roll of water below your legs as you stand on the deck of a sailing vessel. That same visceral feeling is what you would want your orchestra to reproduce in a musical sense. If your perception of the sea is that of someone flying over it, you will not have the same sensual experience to attempt to relate to the orchestra. Stokowski crossed the Atlantic many times and almost all of them via ship. He crossed the Pacific via the same means. (He had a fear of flying.) This may be more an ocean than a sea, but it smells salty to me.

La Mer is one of those pieces that I did not like at first. I didn't dislike it, either, but it took a long time for me to appreciate it. My current copies include Karajan's "Das Mer" (I cannot figure out why it is so highly rated). I also have Ansermet's account on London, which I like a lot but the sound is a bit thin. Then there is Haitink's Concertgebouw recording, a wonderful interpretation and recording from a conductor I generally find dull. There is also Martinon's on EMI. I particularly love how he gets the orchestra to 'shimmer' like waves towards the end of the first movement before it swells to a climax. In fact, that moment is one of the defining ones for me so far as evaluating a performance. Finally, perhaps my favorite, the monaural recording by Monteux with the Boston Symphony (on RCA 9026-61890). My ears soon adjust to the mono sound, which is very good anyway, and I am swept away by the power and excitement of this version. It is also the fastest I know.

In comparing these recordings, using just the first movement, Stokowski's opening can be sensed, can be felt before it can be heard. This is also true of the Monteux recording. Martinon 'emerges' from the mist quite nicely. Haitink is not as good here, but damn he has the best solo violinist of them all!! The closing moments in Stokowski's hands shimmer above the waters, not quite as magical as Martinon (but, see below) then swell deeply before rising to its dashing close. Throughout, Stokowski is slower than Martinon (9:46 to 9:08 in the first movement and then there's Monteux at 8:38!!!). On the other hand, Stokowski is never dull, in fact he is exciting (you'd never guess he was 90 when these were recorded)!! He may milk it for all its worth, but extremism in the name of…or something like that.*

Nobody performed Debussy's "Prélude…" better than Stokowski, and this is the finest of all of the 11 we have to sample**. This release captures the inner details and atmosphere which were not present in the original LPs!! (I know, I have somehow sinned;-) This is simply the finest recording I have ever heard of this piece. (By the way, this is the opening 'work' in the animated/classical music film, Allegro non Troppo. Highly recommended for searing an animated image on your brain that will be called forth every time you hear the music.) I know, another digression….or is it an aside?????

Do you want to hear a study in phrasing? Listen to this recording of Stokowski's orchestration of 'The Engulfed Cathedral' and then listen to any other conductor's more recent recordings. Stokowski embues this music with a majesty and aura of an era long gone. The others pale by comparison.

Then there's a most sensual Daphnis & Chloé Suite. The drive to my new home crosses some of the eastern hills of mid-Ohio. Along the way I go around a turn and then suddenly see a deep, farm studded, rolling valley. Far ahead I can see the crests of more hills echoing away. The experience takes my breath away every time. That same sensation is all I can think of to describe how Stokowski's opening to this recording of Daphnis affects my mind's ear.

(This is the "below" referred to above. This disc is one of the latest batch of Decca/London releases that has been made in America instead of Germany. Comparison of many discs of the same music in previous releases has established that these latest ones are fuller and warmer. There is also added detail. There are moments in the first movement of La Mer that you can now hear music that literally wasn't there in the previous CD. In fact, there are moments you can hear music that you can't hear on the LP!!! It is all still warm and pleasurable.

*Research indicates that Stokowski first performed Debussy's "Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun" with the Cincinnati Orchestra in 1912. Over the years he frequently performed this piece and other Debussy, including Stokowski's own transcriptions. Oddly, I cannot find an entry for La Mer until October of 1949 with the New York Philharmonic!!!

* *There are 10 listed in John Hunt's over-all excellent publication. Since it was published, however, the Concertgebouw have released, on Globe, a disc containing a live 1951 performance with Stokowski at the helm.

Post Script: I experience, literally, brain pleasure when listening to certain recordings and performances. It begins as a glowing sensation emitting from my ears. Then it flows as a tingling sensation along the back of my ears, arching down along the back of my brain, radiating down a bit. It is a pleasurable sensation. I sense it while listening to this latest Stokowski release. At moments the music seems to be coming from within me, swirling around me. I write this as straight as an arrow. I wonder if this same tactile sensation is experienced by others and if it is a function in 'loving' music even more than appreciating it.

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II