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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Pastoral, Op.68 (1808) [43:39]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Three Hungarian Rhapsodies: No. 1 in F minor (orch. Doppler, Liszt) [8:38];
No. 2 in C Sharp minor (orch. Müller-Berghaus) [8:37]; No. 3 in D major (orch. Doppler, Liszt) [7:41]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Sounds of Nature - Illustrated discussion by Leopold Stokowski [5:51]
rec. 18-19 March 1954 (Liszt), 13 January, 10 February 1955 (Beethoven), Manhattan Center, New York, USA. AAD
CALA RECORDS CACD0545 [74:28]
 


Some conductors have the almost uncanny ability to interpret freshly a composer’s work and to inspire the most jaded orchestral players to breathe life into music once thought overexposed.” Biographer Paul Robinson (1977) from ‘Stokowski - The Art of the Conductor’.
 
Sometimes the casual listener can become perplexed by the continuing Stokowski phenomenon.. There is something very special about this maverick conductor/arranger who captures the heart of so many music-lovers and continues to be feted by an increasingly large body of enthusiasts who have elevated him from mere cult-status.
 
Born in London of Polish-Irish ancestry, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) found considerable success in the United States, where he became naturalised as an American citizen.. In addition to his sixty-year legacy of making studio recordings Stokowski was an inveterate transcriber of music for the symphony orchestra. I believe he made some two hundred orchestral arrangements of works which had started life in other forms, such as: piano solos, songs, organ music, chamber works etc. Stokowski’s reputation suffered a decline following his death in 1977, some of which was due to a bad press and also to a change in fashion. There is currently a resurgence of interest in Stokowski, for his recordings as a conductor and for his orchestral transcriptions, with several high quality recordings both new and re-issues being available in the catalogues.
 
Stokowski was one of the leading conductors in the recording industry virtually throughout the whole of his career. He was prolific in the recording studio right from the fledgling acoustics with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1917 to electrical recordings in 1924, with pioneering concert broadcasts in the early 1930s and delivering symphonic music to Hollywood with the release of the soundtrack to Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. He loved to be in control and with the advantage of his powerful personality and innate musical gifts he was acknowledged over many years for his ability to inspire record companies, music producers and orchestral performers with his amazingly strong artistic vision. Often detractors would criticise his tendency for idiosyncratic interpretations of his recordings that seemed very radical compared to that of his contemporaries. Furthermore his frequent tinkering with published orchestral scores was a source of great annoyance for some.
 
Stokowski made several recordings of Beethoven symphonies during his career, including the Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808) more than once, using it in the film score to Fantasia, although he was never generally thought of as a specialist Beethoven interpreter. He never completed a cycle of Beethoven symphonies only recording five of them.
 
The ‘Pastoral’ formed a fairly regular fixture in Stokowski’s concert programmes. The 1954 recording of the ‘Pastoral’ has divided opinion over the years. It was generally considered to be beautifully performed with the orchestra radiating a most impressive range of colours. The slow pace of the Andante molto mosso movement became and continues to be a controversial issue with many authors holding the view that his tempo is unacceptably sluggish.
 
In the opening movement Allegro ma non troppo one is struck by the freshness of Stokowski’s reading that contains a solid sense of nature and the great outdoors in every bar. It has long been acknowledged that the second movement ‘Scene by the brook’ is played exceptionally slowly. Feeling able to accept the good grace of Stokowski’s exceptional insights I experienced the music as gentle and relaxing as if basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun..
 
I loved the rustic evening picture that Stokowski fruitfully evokes in the ‘Peasant’s merrymaking’ movement, here joyously conveyed in a carefree manner with great vivacity. In the fourth movement ‘Thunderstorm’ the tremolo in the lower strings makes a superb evocation of thunder that gains in intensity into a furious and violent eruption. In the final movement marked Allegretto Stokowski expertly relieves the tension with playing that is lovingly and gloriously performed. It feels as if the conductor is assisting Beethoven to announce a brand new day with uninhibited delight and majestic playing.
 
The disc also includes three orchestrated versions of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies; originally piano works. Stokowski selected and recorded three of the Hungarian Rhapsodies with the NBC Symphony Orchestra at the Manhattan Center in New York in 1954. He clearly admired No. 2 in the orchestration by Karl Müller-Berghaus as he recorded it several times. The other two are performed here in the versions to which Stokowski has added his own touches to the orchestration. In the Third he has added a cimbalom but also using a solo viola. These are spirited and vibrant performances that thrill and delight. Some may find the addition of the cimbalom something of an acquired taste.
 
This disc also includes a six minute “illustrated discussion” entitled the ‘Sounds of Nature’. It is difficult not to agree with the view of Stokowski’s biographer Paul Robinson who wrote, “…he is no Bernstein. His talks have an Olympian aura about them. He comes across as stiff and somewhat pompous and his comments are superficial rather than penetrating or perceptive.” In truth the talk is brief and fairly interesting and Stokowski uses musical examples to illustrate a few of Beethoven’s musical ideas.
 
I found the sound quality, that we are told has been through a ‘digital remastering’ process, to be generally unpleasant, rather over-bright and poorly focused at the edges. The woodwind section performs superbly throughout and comes up well in the recorded sound, however the timbre of the strings is uninspiring. The booklet notes are interesting and reasonably informative.
 
Stokowski continues to divide opinion and with this idiosyncratic interpretation of the Pastoral most will either love it or hate it. I loved the interpretation but not the sound.
 
Michael Cookson

see also review by Jonathan Woolf 

 



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