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
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
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.
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..
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
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.
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.
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
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.
also review by Jonathan Woolf
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