> STOKOWSKI Russian Masterworks CACD0505 [JW]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Russian Masterworks
Nikolas RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Russian Easter Festival Overture Op 36
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Humoresque Op 10 No 2 orch. Stokowski
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird Suite (1919 version)
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
March from The Love for Three Oranges Op 33a
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 4
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski
Recorded 1941-42
CALA CACD 0505 [75.24]


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After leaving the Philadelphia Orchestra and forming the All-American Youth Orchestra – soon to suffer because of American involvement in the War - Stokowski was without an orchestra. Fortuitously a walkout by Toscanini left the NBC Orchestra looking for a conductor and so Stokowski was engaged, for three seasons (two of them shared with the now returned and mollified Toscanini). The first recordings on this disc, made in 1942, were recorded in an acoustically revamped Studio 8-H, whilst the Tchaikovsky Symphony and the Prokofiev March were made in 1941 in the richer acoustic of the Cosmopolitan Opera House, whilst those same renovations were taking place. Stokowski had recorded the Rimsky-Korsakov before, in Philadelphia in 1929 and was to do so again. It’s certainly a galvanizing performance – you can hear the Slavonic brass writing that must have influenced Janacek so much - and one with a remarkable trick up its sleeve. Instead of the trombone solo that represents the priest’s chanting, Stokowski instead employs a beefy sounding baritone, Nicola Moscona. The original Victor album claimed this brought "additional tone-colour to the score", a claim the composer might have been tempted to debate were he around to do so. Nevertheless, oddities excluded, this is certainly a muscular, no-nonsense performance a little vitiated on this transfer by somewhat less than perfect copies. Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque – maybe better known in the context of Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss ballet, is winningly done though I’m not sure I really care for the Prokofiev March which is, even in the circumstances, short on subtlety. Stravinsky was not a composer much conducted by Toscanini but Stokowski made eight recordings of The Firebird Suite between 1924 and 1967, which must set some kind of record. The question of how much is Stravinsky and how much Stokowski will inevitably arise. Listening to the lyrical outpouring at 1.27 in the Berceuse will have you checking the CD booklet for confirmation of which composer you’re listening to. Similarly the Dance of the Firebird tends to seep too much unalloyed sentiment for its own good. The Infernal Dance is certainly that, though whether the barely controlled frenzy works to the Suite’s advantage is, to me, doubtful. His commitment to the works of living composers was admirable but not always matched by comparable stylistic insight. As with Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky was not one of Toscanini’s favoured composers whereas he most assuredly was Stokowski’s. The small cut of eight bars in the finale was routinely made by the conductor and by no means as uncommon or as drastic as those made by his colleagues. He had made a particularly excessive recording of the Symphony in Philadelphia in 1928 and this NBC performance is certainly nowhere near as questionable as that. It does, however, contain a sufficiently high amount of gear changing, tempo-modification, accelerandos and extravagant portamentos – listen at 6.08 in the first movement to a real case of over ripe sliding - to cause alarm. With it comes sonorous and expressive playing and yet more evidence of Stokowski’s vivid personality. But not a Tchaikovsky for the Library by any means. The notes are excellent, remastering good but, as I indicated, better sounding copies could have been used.

Jonathan Woolf

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