> Stokowski (Tchaikovsky/Strauss) [JW]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 6 Pathetique
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra (Tchaikovsky)
New York City Symphony Orchestra (Strauss)
Leopold Stokowski
Recorded July 1945 (Tchaikovsky) and December 1944 (Strauss)
CALA CACD 0506 [68.52]


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Cala’s commitment to resurrecting Stokowski’s recordings has been of long standing. This disc dates from 1996 and therefore antedates the subsequent consistently high quality documentation written by Edward Johnson of the Stokowski Society that delineated performance history in enlightening detail. But the trajectory of these mid-period recordings is clear enough. The Strauss dates from December 1944 and his brief time with the New York City Symphony Orchestra whilst the Tchaikovsky from the following year when he had been invited to form the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra – an ensemble drawn from top studio musicians. He made many recordings of short pieces with the latter ensemble but only three substantial sets – Manual de Falla’s Love the Magician, Brahms’ First Symphony (both in their ways contentious performances) and this Pathetique.

More than most conductors of his generation – maybe uniquely so in fact – Stokowski was passionately interested in the recording process; his longevity and questing imagination often led to multiple recordings of much of his repertoire over many decades. He recorded the Strauss – and he was frugal when it came to Strauss – three times in a decade with three different orchestras; Philadelphia, All American Youth Orchestra and this one in New York. Similarly he recorded the Pathetique thrice between 1940 and 1973. Listening to a contemporary wartime recording of the Strauss by Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw – another conductor whose modifications and supposed stylistic and narrative transgressions appal and enthral equally – and one becomes aware of a philosophical gulf between the two conductors. It’s not just that Stokowski’s reputation as a "colourist" precedes him or that Cardus’s view of him as a musical "embalmer" should dispose the listener one way or the other; rather it’s the promotion of orchestral colour at the expense, ultimately, of architectural depth in the broadest sense which seems to me to be the problem. There is certainly animation and velocity a-plenty in Stokowski’s reading but little of the frantic fissures that are opened up in Amsterdam.

The Tchaikovsky is again problematic though Stokowski could be unambiguously magnetic in this repertoire. In his 1973 traversal with the LSO (RCA 09026626022) he led a solidly unspectacular performance; whereas comparison with a live broadcast in the same year with the same orchestra shows a finer control of architectural logic and considerably more animation and emotional tension. Comparison with 1945 is not always to the older recording’s advantage. Passionately overheated it has a coagulatory quality that will either inspire or repel. I don’t find in it the logical ascents to the climaxes that do exist in subsequent recordings; too much seems wayward and imposed; and the dread word "sentimentalised" is never far away. It’s never unmoving – Stokowski was incapable of dullness – but its emotional graph is not matched by commensurate structural integrity.

Jonathan Woolf

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