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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Stokowski Beethoven Cycle

  • Symphony #3 "Eroica" (12 December 1963) 1
  • Symphony #4 (10 October 1966) 2
  • Symphony #5 (26 December 1943) 3
  • Symphony #6 "Pastoral" (23 January 1966) 2
  • Symphony #7 (13 January 1968) 4
  • Symphony #8 (24 March 1966) 5
  • Symphony #9 (23 April 1972) 2
Helen Boatwright, soprano
Louise Parker, contralto
Richard Shadley, tenor
Douglas Hill, bass
1 Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
2 American Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
3 NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
4 Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
5 Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski

Let me state at the outset, since I am anyway, that this is the best collection of a close-to-complete Stokowski Beethoven cycle I have yet come across. The sound is excellent and there are performances that are not only rare, the Beethoven 4th, but also superbly interpreted.

Two of the items have been previously available (though not easily). The 7th Symphony was issued on a Memories set in 1992. The sound on that was tubby and not clear. Here you get an excellent transfer of an exciting performance. The 8th was issued on a Chicago Symphony Archive set in 1990. Here, again, is a better sounding recording. Some people argue that the 8th is laid back, but not in Stokowski's hands. It is a toe-tapping performance, the best I know of the work.

The two gems of this collection are the 4th and 9th Symphonies. The Fourth is the finest I have ever heard. It has that toe-tapping quality that is like a pulse of life. The opening is dark, brooding and then the music erupts in a joyous, vibrant dance. I kept muttering 'damn' as I listened. The Choral is quite simply among the finest versions I have ever heard. It ranks along side Furtwängler that is a spiritual experience to an atheist. The sound on this particular performance suffers from some tape drop-outs but they cannot distract from an experience that had me wanting to jump from my seat and cheer… except that particular moment I was listening on my car's player. The audience goes nuts. Stokowski performs the coda as an encore. Here, again, I kept muttering expletives.

The 5th is, as with all of Stokowski's NBC performances, intense and electric. This concert also included Paul Creston's "Chant of 1942" and Deems Taylor's (the announcer in "Fantasia") ballet music from "Ramuntcho" The entire concert is on a disc available from Theo van der Burg (see below) but that recording is not nearly as good as this one from Roy. The NBC Symphony was comprised of some of the finest musicians in the USA at that time. They were an orchestra of virtuosos and could play circles around the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Perhaps the Philadelphia was still a Cadillac created by Stokowski, but the NBC had a different sound and style that the Mysterioso brought out. The Stokowski Sound is there and improved by the Maestro with changes in the studio.

The "Pastoral" is very good and the sound is too. I really don't have a lot more to say about it.

The "Eroica" is my favorite Beethoven Symphony and based on the number of recordings in my collection probably my favorite symphony period. Stokowski's commercial recording has always struck me as a bit flaccid and somewhat a disappointment. Perhaps I was expecting what I hear in the three live recordings in the Stokowski Recording Library. This Philadelphia performance is very good but the sound is a bit distant. There are two other live "Eroica" performances available. Patrick Kittel issued an American Symphony Orchestra performance from 28 April 1968 that is even more visceral and the recording is clearer with a solid bass line.

The recordings, with the exception of the American Symphony Orchestra performances, are all from live performances. An announcer introducing the conductor precedes each. Those with the American Symphony Orchestra were probably from tapes made by Paul Hoeffler, who also made many excellent photos of the Mysterioso during those years. In a phone conversation some years ago he told me that in some cases he had a well placed tape deck in the seat next to him and in others managed, somehow, to string microphones over the stage and run them to a reel-to-reel deck. Roy Osnato, the father of these discs, told me of recollections of Paul being removed from the hall shouting, 'I'm just trying to preserve this for posterity!'

The back of each set includes a reproduction from "Modern Screen" magazine with a color picture (not a photo) of Stokowski with Garbo in his arms. The caption reads "Garbo Finds Love".

The producer of these two fine sets is Roy Osnato, who also issued the Philadelphia "Gurrelieder" and other items including a Shostakovich 5th with the Boston Symphony a couple of years ago. He gets the best source material he can find. The only adjustments he makes is to apply De-Hiss filtering and remove low frequency hum. You can get each two-disc set for $20.00 post paid ($23.00 overseas). Contact him at: PIBArchives@aol.com

For copies of the American Symphony Orchestra "Eroica" contact: Patrick.Kittel@gmx.de

Post Script: There is also a live performance of the 2nd Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Now if we could just get a number uno we'd have a complete cycle.

Copyright © 2004, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet