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CD Review

The Heart of the Ballet

Stokowski Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Cala CACD0547
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Leopold Stokowski and HIS Symphony Orchestra; I have written at length about his ad hoc orchestra featuring the finest musicians in the country (and possibly the world) in the late 40s and early 50s. He took a band of around 60 and made it sound like 600 (okay, I am being a bit hyperbolic). I still relish a conversation with Bob Bloom (the oboist) who told me that sometimes they showed up and weren't sure what they were going to record. This may help explain why all of these recordings have freshness to them, they sound like they are a bunch of players having a good time exploring some music. Then Stokowski would go into the recording studio and make extensive notes on how he wanted the engineers to 'improve' the sound.

The content of the original LP is one of those 'theme' records companies would release because the music appealed to the marginal classical music lover. It could almost be used as background music but not a 'pops' release. Stokowski would agree to releases like this (after all it is good music and it pays) and make sure he got to record more substantial fare in return. That said, I have listened to this disc several nights in a row while I read, take notes and think. It is not just pleasant background music; it is stimulating and pleasing at the same time. That is, it makes for a good evening's listening.

I am going to start with the Nutcracker Music. Stokowski recorded this music five times in his life. The most famous, of course, was when he recorded it for Disney's "Fantasia" (if there is a god it will reveal the original source materials for us some day). I think that this may be the best of the bunch. I would have to agree with Ed Johnson who opined, "the upward swoops through the orchestra in the March are brilliant and I love the rubato and portamento in the Arabian Dance." The sound on this disc is very, very good. It is monaural but the details (my notes repeatedly refer to the bassoons) are exquisitely caught. It is too bad that the players are not recognized in the notes. I checked and they are William Polisi and M. Zegler (Polisi was a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra and later the New York Philharmonic, Zegler is not listed and I assume he might have been a free lance player in the area. My thanks to Ed Johnson for this information.)

The Debussy is also one of those pieces Stokowski apparently loved, recording it 10 times over his 60 year recording history. While the sound is 'better' in the 1972 London/Decca release, I am not sure the playing is better. This is a more sensuous performance, the interplay between the flute and harp (the flute is played by John Wummer and the harpist is probably Lucille Lawrence) is erotic.

[Aside: I have to admit that I cannot listen to this music without seeing the animated version in the movie "Allegro non troppo". If you haven't heard about this film you really should get a copy: I can burn a CD for you…the movie is no longer available except through places that specialize in out-of-print stuff. I'll give you my email address at the end of this review and you can let me know if you are interested.]

I had personal reasons for wanting to hear this since it is one of the few classical LPs my father had. I remember the record cover. Comparing this release with the Japanese RCA release of (get date) the Nutcracker, this is SO much better. I noticed when I was listening to it (and Cameo Classics CC9007CD) that the sound was too bright, almost harsh. It is now warm and as inviting as an invitation to a dance. It brings back memories of listening to this record in the evening, laying on the floor and reading. If I had to select just one record (CD) that captures the best of Stokowski, it might be this one.

Copyright © 2008, Robert Stumpf II