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CD Review

The Stokowski Sound


Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano
1 New York City Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
2 Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
3 Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Pearl GEMMCD9276 Transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
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Listening to this music kicked off several possible ways to approach this disc. Let me say from the outset, however, that I loved the listening experiences afforded from reviewing this specific disc. I recommend it and the others discussed herein (with one notable exception). I will try to note differences mainly to suggest why adding this particular release is not a duplication.

There are five possible Bizet "Carmen" recording groups by Stokowski. All but the acoustic versions are available on CD. I listened to all four in studying these releases. I will focus on the well-known opening that is used in the Suite, the Bull Fight, as the focal point for reference. You know, the brass attack ta-ta-ta-ta - ta - ta! etc. The respective recordings are with the Philadelphia in 1927 (Biddulph WHL012), this release from 1945, the 'complete' opera live recording with the Hollywood Bowl SO in 1946 and the final one, in stereo, with the National Philharmonic in 1976, when Stokowski was 94. Now, other than the one chosen point of comparison let me tell you that the rest is all contrast.

Let me start with a quick consumer alert. If you see the two-CD set of the "complete" Carmen Opera on the Eklipse label, destroy it. This is a travesty of sound reproduction. It would be hilarious if it didn't tarnish the memory of great performers. I re-examined these discs because a couple people suggested I had been too harsh in my previous review. If anything, I was too kind. So much promise unfulfilled.

Okay, now to the others. The 1927 pieces were originally released in LP format by the Leopold Stokowski Society of America. That LP, like Biddulph WHL 012, was remastered by Ward Marston. Listening to the Prélude in that recording two things emerge. First, Stokowski and the Philadelphia sound hell-bent with an exciting opening. On the other hand, the sound is congested and lacks the depth of perspective available in the other two recordings.

The selections available in this latest CD release are more extensive than just the suites. The "Prélude Suite" appears on track 6 as "Bull Fight". Timings here are the same, 2:09, as for the 1976 recording. The 1927 recording is 8 seconds faster. Anyway, the sound here is better than in 1927, as you might expect. There is more depth perspective and air around the music. The interpretation is typical for Stokowski at this time. There is more of a Hollywoody aspect to it, for lack of a better term. Things seem more lush, like this was made for an MGM movie. This is not at all bad, especially in this music. The NYCSO have the Stokowski Sound and the solo violinist is a treat (too bad he or she is not identified).

It is important to know that "The Stokowski Sound" was not some unvarying, carbon copy….having heard it once you've heard it period. There are certain verities like a firm, deep bass line often achieved by having a gizzilion double basses utilized. On the other hand, as he traveled and learned, as he worked with different individuals he would use their talents, wedding it to his thinking and produce different nuances. Differences were also wrought by his involvement in the recording process, bringing out, again, differing facets. In fact, the notion of facets of a diamond are an excellent analogy of the differences in the Stokowski Sound. If you turn a diamond in the sun, different aspects of its beauty will be reflected. The same is true of the Stokowski Sound.

Moving on to the 1976 recording we hear another facet. Comparison here is difficult, if not impossible, because of the significant differences in recording. This is a lush recording, much like a stereo update of the 1945 recording. While there are differences, the sound is not a significant one. True, this is stereo, but is it early CD and I can imagine how much better it would sound today if put out in 20-Bit format. I don't want to go into a lot of detail, especially since the CBS recording is probably not available, but let me make a couple observations. The Dragoons section in both '46 and '76 are almost Tchaikovskian. There are occasional different details emerging in the later recording. For example, the strings play a more dominant role in the Intermezzo (track 4 in the CBS recording, 3 on this latest one). So, both recordings offer different nuances and general perspective. If you happen to have the earlier one, this latest release will add to your appreciation.

Back to 1946. There is more than just more music in this latest release. The violins opening the whole thing shimmer and stir in the head, I have caught myself humming the music. The Dragoons section has, a delightful, Tchaikovskian ballet-like lilt. While the other two recordings also have this, it is more pronounced this time. All-in-all, this is a wonderful selection.

Back to "Ibéria" (which is the "title" for this CD) or the rest of the music on this disc. The next two pieces are with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1928. The Albéniz was recorded only one other time in Stokowski's life, with the NPO in 1976 on CBS (where are you guys!!!!! This was a great LP!!!). This is just lovely music making, and was previously available on a Biddulph disc (Stokowski "Pops" Biddulph WHL047) in a remastering by Ward Marston. Listening to Ward's work next to Mark Obert-Thorn's is a revelation. Ward's job seems to have more reverberation added to it, the details are blurred, the sound a bit tubby. When you listen to Mark's you are immediately struck by the fact that this is more detailed yet warm, less tubby. The bells eruption at around 1:00 are more limned and as a result there is more tension. This is the case throughout. I do not mean to take sides, but in this case Mark has done a better job of capturing the Stokowski sound by making sure the tension is there. As for the music, if you don't know it, you'll love it.

On to de Falla. I will skip the short piece since there are no other recordings available in any venue. Let's move on to El Amor Brujo (EAB). There was one other commercial recording with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1960 (CBS Masterworks CD MPK46449). There also exists two live performances, the one with the BBCSO in 1964 (on Music & Arts 770). A comparison of the items on CD quickly reveals the following. The 1946 recording cannot compare with the other two in sound. Furthermore, the soloist is too operatic for my tastes. The BBCSO performance has the best orchestral textures, is most sinister. On the other hand, the soloist is so far set back, though less operatic, that she sometimes disappears into the orchestra. The CBS (get with it guys!!! reissue it in 20-Bit [catchy, eh?] and the other Stokowski gems) has the best soloist (I think, since Lane is hard to hear) but the orchestral contribution, believe it or not, is not as atmospheric. Frankly, I think the sound problem here affects the overall impression and if Sony chooses to remaster this in the latest technology I may well change my opinion. What struck me while studying these recordings, in particular, was that sound has a significant impact on interpretation. In addition to the Bizet I was intrigued by the differences remastering philosophies can produce as heard in the Albéniz. Then there's this piece….I love learning.

So, a final verdict? This disc is a gem. You will hear orchestral music produced by one of the greatest conductors in the 20th Century. They don't do it this way anymore. That is different, not necessarily better, but I liked it more. You'll have a good listening time.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II