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Leopold STOKOWSKI: The Classic 1947-1949 Columbia Recordings, Volume 1
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883): The Flying Dutchman Overture (1841) [9’38"]
Recorded 21 February 1949
Mikhail IPPOLITOV-IVANOV (1859-1935): ‘In the Village’ from Caucasian Sketches (1895) [4’37"] Recorded 3 November 1947
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992): L’Ascension – Four Symphonic Meditations (1933) [16’57"] Recorded 21 February & 21 March 1949
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920): ‘The White Peacock’ from Roman Sketches (1918) [6’07"] Recorded 17 November 1947
Richard WAGNER (arr. Stokowski): ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ and ‘Magic Fire Music’ from Die Walküre ( 1856) [15’53"]
Recorded 17 November 1947
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958): Fantasia on "Greensleeves" (1934) [4’15"] Recorded 21 February 1949
Peter Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893): ‘Francesca da Rimini’, Op.32 (1876) [18’56"] Recorded 3 November 1947
New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski
All 1947 recordings made in Carnegie Hall, New York. All 1949 recordings made in Columbia’s 30th Street Studios, New York
CALA CACD0534 [76’47"]


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The recordings gathered here all come from the period (1946-1950) when Leopold Stokowski was especially closely connected with the New York Philharmonic as its Guest Conductor. In the very interesting liner notes a contemporary member of the NYPO describes him as "authoritarian and unyielding in his demands". As these recordings show the orchestra was more than capable of fulfilling those demands. It’s worth quoting a comment by another member of the orchestra from that era. In the notes accompanying the fascinating CD collection, The New York Philharmonic, the Historic Broadcasts, 1923-1987, John Ware (trumpet, 1948-88) recalls "to me the orchestra always sounded warmer with him than with anyone else. It had an intensity and emotional contact, and the free bowing gave the strings an unusual legato quality." I’d say that the second sentence of that recollection is borne out amply by what we hear on this CD.

Certainly the intensity and emotional contact are fully on display in the ‘Flying Dutchman’ overture (track 1). This is a bracing and fiery opening to the disc, yet it is one in which the cantabile sections are done equally well. The other Wagner offerings, ‘Stoki’s’ arrangement of ‘Wotan’s Farewell’, followed by the ‘Magic Fire’ music (track 8) are no less impressive. I had feared that the Farewell, shorn of its vocal line, might be a strange experience. In the event the sheer verve and majesty of the playing compensates amply. Perhaps this item is not for the Wagner purist but sample, if you will, the amazing build up of volume (and tension) from 2’35" to the great moment of release at 3’35"; this is a master conductor at work. The entire performance is distinguished by refulgent strings and noble brass and I thought it very fine.

I have some reservations about the Messiaen. This was the first recording of the orchestral version. Indeed, it may well have been the first recording of the work in either form since the composer’s own recording of the organ score itself was not made until 1956 and I am not aware of any earlier versions. One cannot but admire the enterprise of Stokowski (and Columbia) in recording such a work a mere 16 years after its completion for this must have seemed a very daring not to say arcane choice of repertoire at the time.

I have to say, however, that I find the tempo for the opening movement (‘Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père’) anything but majestic. Indeed, it is so brisk as to seem perfunctory (track 3). Stokowski dispatches this noble chorale in a mere 2’43" where Messiaen himself in his own (organ) recording takes 6’47". The composer’s broad and stately conception seems not a second too long. The second movement (‘Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désir le ciel’) is also much brisker in Stokowski’s hands than under Messiaen’s fingers (4’16" against 7’57") but in this case I prefer Stokowski’s approach and he conjures up some mesmerising sonorities from the orchestra (track 4). The third movement (‘Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale’) exists only in the orchestral version for Messiaen wrote a completely different movement, ‘Transports de joie’, for the organ version. The performance by Stokowski and the NYPO is full of exuberant virtuosity. The concluding ‘Prière du Christ, montant vers son Père’ (track 6) is echt-Stokowski, scored as it is for sumptuous strings. Once again, he is much faster than the composer, taking 4’46" whereas Messiaen weighs in at 9’18". However, in this instance I think both approaches are right. Messiaen can and does justify his extreme tempo in the context of an ecclesiastical acoustic and with the sustaining power of the organ. Stokowski, I think, makes an equally correct choice for strings in the concert hall. Though I have a major reservation concerning the first of the four movements (which others may not share) the remainder strikes me as a very fine account.

In 1958 Stokowski made a recording of Francesca da Rimini (his second) with the Stadium Symphony of New York (a contractual alias for the NYPO, I believe). That performance, coupled with an equally fine one of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet constitutes what is, quite simply, the most incandescent recording of that composer’s music I have ever heard. (I have it on dell’Arte CDDA 9006.) To be candid, this 1947 recording, though it has much to commend it, is not in the same league. The conductor secures virtuosic playing on both recordings but in 1947 his tempi in the turbulent allegro music, so urgent and involving in 1958, here seem just a bit too hectic (though the NYPO is fully up to the challenge). It’s tremendously exciting but the 1958 reading is positively electrifying. The central love music is played with all the passion you’d expect from Stokowski but even here I think he has more to offer in 1958. Then there’s the question of the text. In 1958 he gave the score complete but Richard Gate tells us in his liner notes that in 1947 the maestro "made a number of brief cuts in the ‘storm’ music on the grounds that the bars he cut were repetitive." These cuts and the quicker tempi mean that this 1947 reading takes 18’56" against 23’12" in 1958. Personally I prefer the later version but there is plenty of magnetism in this 1947 account also.

The remaining short pieces are all well done. The Ippolitov-Ivanov is, frankly, a trifle of Russian-oriental hokum but Stokowski relishes every second of it. The Griffes work, premiered by Stokowski in 1919 during his Philadelphia days, is similarly not a piece of great substance but once again the conductor lavishes great care on it and secures some pretty marvellous playing from the New Yorkers. I was interested to find that the Vaughan Williams ‘Fantasia’ was the original coupling for Stokowski’s world premiere recording of RVW’s Sixth Symphony (which he recorded on the same day, 21 February 1949, just two days before Boult made his first recording of the piece in London.) That Stokowski reading of the symphony has always seemed to me to be a bit underrated. Of course, the music of the Fantasia inhabits a completely different world. It finds Stokowski at his most lyrical, playing the gorgeous main melody for all it is worth.

To sum up, this is a most interesting collection. Cala have done a first rate job with the transfers and the original sound is pretty remarkable for its age. Richard Gates’ notes are excellent. I enjoyed this compilation hugely and have no hesitation in recommending it.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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