from the start Stokowski gives
us a romantically gorgeous First
Symphony. In the andante ma
non troppo lento Stokowski
and his hand-picked orchestra
italicise many of the details.
The multi-miking which characterises
the sound accentuates detail after
detail yet Stokowski's reading
avoids any suggestion of torpor.
I suppose that the approach might
be criticised for its highly idiosyncratic
brand of spontaneous self-indulgence.
However if this is the price of
such life-celebrating music then
so be it. Recently I have heard
the early 1950s recordings made
by Eugene Ormandy with what had
for years been Stokowski’s orchestra,
the Philadelphia. These are from
early LPs and let me tell you
I have rarely heard a better and
more ruggedly vigorous Pohjola’s
Daughter or En Saga -
and there are some superb ones
in the catalogue (Horst Stein,
Furtwängler, Toscanini and a recently
discovered treasure in the shape
of Ole Schmidt’s recording with
a striking Symphony 5 on Regis).
Stokowski grasps similar freshness
in this recording. In the first,
third and final movements it is
as if ‘Mr Velocity’ Golovanov
had hold of the reins; it’s quick!
Listen to the way he pushes and
pushes the envelope at 4:02 in
the finale - has the harp figuration
ever sounded so urgent? Beecham’s
Lemminkainen’s Return is
a byword for a hell-for-leather
ride (though Ormandy’s 1954 version
is even more urgent). Stokowski
is just as driven but his pealing
and throbbing golden-toned violins
(7:21 IV) pulsate with passion
and do not seem hurried.
all is beautiful in this garden. The sound is beefy upfront
honest-to-goodness mono, the perspectives are constantly
shifting and zooming in for solos or out to accommodate
fortissimos, in the first movement at two transient points
the pitch sounds watery and analogue hiss is somewhat in
evidence though soon cancelled out by the listening experience.
still rate Barbirolli’s Hallé EMI Classics recording of
the First Symphony (only available as part of a complete
cycle which elsewhere is very uneven) but if you cannot
do without Stokowski yet want better sound than he could
deliver in 1950 you have no choice other than to track him
down conducting another ‘scratch’ orchestra, Sidney Sax’s
National Philharmonic, this time in West Ham Central Mission,
London in 1976. This was amongst his last recordings, first
issued on a Desmar LP in the late 1970s. It is an outstanding
reading but in every movement he takes longer than he did
25 years earlier though in some cases only by a handful
pulse of Stokowski’s Second Symphony is monumental rather
than quick. The flame burns steadily rather than greedily.
There are some impetuous details in the first two movements
(the gruff rip of the brass at 8:30 in II) but overall the
progress is sturdily epic. The recording is more subtle
than in the First Symphony taken down four years previously.
Here there is less spotlighting and you may well find yourself
missing that guilty pleasure. My thoughts went back to the
same conductor recorded at the 1964 Proms when he also turned
in a lower key Sibelius 2. Among the great versions of Sibelius
2 you must hear the Chesky CD of the RPO/Barbirolli and
Ormandy and the Philadelphians superb in 1958 on Sony SBK53509.
The most volcanic 2 ever can still be had from BBC Legends
4154-2 - it’s Beecham conducting (and bellowing at)
the BBCSO at a live RFH concert in December 1954.
documentation is excellent. There’s a scene-setter by Edward
W Clark, an artistically wide-ranging essay by Stokowski
from the sleeve of the 1954 LP and a study by the redoubtable
Edward Johnson of Stokowski as a Sibelius champion.
remains a must-have for Sibelians jaded with recordings
of the First Symphony heavy with the orthodoxy of our days.
If the Second Symphony is not as special it is well worth
hearing for its epic stride. Stokowskians will already have
snapped up their copies. More Stokowski Sibelius please.
Comments received from Anthony Fast:
an excellent review of the Cala Stokowski Sibelius disc. Two
1. The recording
of the First Symphony with the National Philharmonic was
originally a CBS issue, and not Desmar. Only two recordings
Stoki made for Desmar were the Rachmaninoff Third with
Vocalise (National Philharmonic), and the Dvorak String
Serenade with a little Purcell encore (Royal Philharmonic).
I haven't heard the Cala reissue of the Sibelius First,
but I always had trouble with the CBS LP, then the Sony
CD because of what seems like an excessive amount of resonance
that clouds a lot of detail. I've read that the Cala
is an improvement.
2. I think the best way to hear Stokowski in the Second
Symphony is a live performance with the Phillies from
the 60s which was included in a Philadelphia Orchestra
issued box a few years back. The sound is excellent,
and of course, the orchestra plays like angels. I certainly
agree with you that the Chesky issue of Barbirolli's recording
for Reader's Digest is a truly exalted document.