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CD Review

Stokowski Plays Ravel & Franck

* Sophia van Sante, mezzo-soprano
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Stokowski
Medici Arts MM026
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The Franck and Prokofieff were released on two Music and Arts CDs (657 in 1990 and 252 in 1987*) but this latest incarnation couples both on the same disc, adds the Ravel and is significantly better sounding. The sound is fuller, there is more of a clear bass line and the strings are sweeter. Of course the producer had access to the library tapes from the orchestra so you would expect no less.

Aside from Stokowski I have the Franck by Beecham and Monteux. The differences between them are significant and I would suggest that this is due to Stokowski's background with the organ. In fact I wonder if at some time in his life Stokowski arranged the symphony, or parts of it, for the organ when he was in New York. This live performance predated his commercial recording with the same orchestra (which was also my initiation to the symphony). That LP credited the Hilversum Radio Symphony Orchestra. Hilversum is the city where the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performs.

How does this performance differ from the commercial recording? Well, of course Phase 4 gimmickry had something to do with the sound on that release but what you hear from the live broadcast is not significantly different in sound. The deep, rich bass sound Stokowski was known for is there. This is, however, a more dynamic performance with sharper accents and faster tempi. Ed Johnson opined that Stokowski was tired by the time he got to the recording studio and so led a slower performance. I have another theory, I think that the recording process may have required a slower tempo to accommodate the Phase 4 process. What we have is a different interpretation, demonstrating that Stokowski could perceive the symphony in different ways. I know I do this in the songs I perform…changing them as the occasion strikes me to hear the music in a different way. The commercial recording is not just slower…it is also a more "majestic" and Romantic one…the solo in the second movement has never sounded more poignant. That is, you really must have this recording, which is still available on CALA 525 coupled with Messiaen's L'Ascension and other goodies. After struggling for some time trying to find the right way to explain how the commercial recording differs, it is that the commercial recording is more like an orchestral organ was being played…Franck's instrument…while the live performance is more orchestral. That probably makes things clear as mud.

Now for the main reason to get this release: the Prokofieff. Stokowski gave the U.S. première of the piece with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on 7 March 1943. I have a copy of that performance coupled with a rehearsal of the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965. The NBC performance is electric; the battle on the ice has an eerie chill at the end. The sound is not that good on my copy and it is nice to have a stereo version now. This performance is even more Russian sounding, with a terrific tam-tam in The Crusaders in Pskov. As usual, the Old Magician gets The Stokowski Sound from the orchestra. This is riveting music.

* We owe a debt of gratitude to Fred Maroth, founder of Music and Arts, for all the work he did making LPs and CDs of this kind of music. He worked from air checks and did the best possible at the time. Without his efforts and he certainly didn't become wealthy doing it, there would have been a void in broadcast performances.

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Stumpf II