This, let me say right at the beginning, is a wonderful disc.
It records a complete concert that Stokowski gave at the age of
88. One might have been prepared for the musical insights of a
man who had recorded the second movement of Franck’s symphony
almost 50 years earlier in 1922 and who had conducted the first
US performance of Alexander Nevsky in 1943. But the sheer
vigour, energy and imagination of these performances set down
by a man approaching his tenth decade, leaves one - or, at any
rate, this one - nonetheless amazed.
one perceptive Dutch reviewer pointed out at the time, this
would “probably be the last time one will hear the Franck symphony
under the direction of a conductor who was born before the premiere
of 1889 took place”. Putting things into that kind of useful
perspective might make one expect an unsurprising, traditional
interpretation of music that had, by the middle of the twentieth
century, become something of an orchestral warhorse. But here
we get nothing of the sort!
an earlier review of Stokowski conducting his own Bach transcriptions
on disc, I quoted him as once saying that “through imagination,
through feeling, through… some instinctive quality that some
artists have, we have to try to understand and reproduce and
give to the listening public what we consider was in the
mind and soul of the composer…”. And it turns out that,
asked by orchestra members at rehearsals for this very concert
why he was amending Franck’s orchestration, he said much the
same thing – that he “didn’t expect César Franck to agree with
what he did but, once he heard it, he would have agreed”.
might, of course, see the suggestion that some conductors have
a special insight into a composer’s mind, allowing them to go
beyond the mere printed notes on the page, as simple egotism.
Yet, to Stokowski, there was no automatic dichotomy between
the creative composer and the re-creative conductor. To him,
both served a higher purpose, with the conductor assuming, if
necessary, the responsibility of divining the music’s ideal
form that the - perhaps fallible - composer would have set down
in the score if only he’d been able to.
the case of Franck’s symphony, that meant, in the first place,
tinkering with the orchestration. As a transcriber of organ
works for full orchestra himself, Stokowski would have been
very aware of the frequently made charge that Franck’s orchestration
can be so heavy and powerful (organ like?) that it sometimes
drowns out significant instrumental voices. Hence he decided,
for this concert, to double the parts for the English horn and
the contrabassoon. Anticipating his probable requirements, the
orchestra had already hired a third harpist before the first
second means of “improving” the score, meanwhile, was to be
far more flexible with tempi. To an extent, of course,
all conductors will have particular quirks in that regard –
musical trademarks, if you like, that distinguish their own
interpretations from those of others. Just looking at some of
the Franck symphonies on my own CD shelves demonstrates how
the score has, over the years, seen some quite striking variations
that is manifested consistently across the whole work. At one
extreme, for instance, we have the skittish Paul Paray and the
Detroit Symphony Orchestra with the fastest timings for every
one of the three movements: 16:00/8:48/9:10 – making 33:58 in
all. At the other end of the spectrum we find the Carlo Maria
Giulini’s very grand, deliberate account with the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra, recording the slowest times for every single movement
at 21:30/12:21/12:50 – no less than 46:41 altogether!
with the less consistently extreme approaches – from, on my
shelves, Beecham, Barbirolli, van Otterloo and Monteux – individual
conductors will have their personal idiosyncrasies: Barbirolli’s
speedier than usual allegretto or van Otterloo’s especially
urgent finale. But what is virtually unique to Stokowski’s account
is the way in which the tempo variations are so marked, in all
three movements, even between one musical phrase and the next.
Yet another contemporary reviewer observed that the conductor
was willing “to sacrifice such matters as strictness of form
and unity of movement so expressly to emotional aspects that
the threshold to the sentimental was crossed more than once”.
Stokowski, in fact, makes even the notoriously wilful Willem
Mengelberg – who gives Paray a good run for his money and even
beats him to the finishing line in the finale – look predictable
of the characteristics of the Franck performance are also apparent
in the Prokofiev. Stokowski clearly revels in – and hence feels
far less need to alter - the imaginative orchestration that
the composer used to differentiate the participants in the drama.
Appropriately harsh dissonance characterises the brutal Teutonic
Knights while suitably rich, mellow harmonies illustrate the
Russian peasants who resist their aggression. While Eisenstein’s
1938 film may never have become a cinematic blockbuster - Stalin
quickly ordered it shelved when he made a temporary pact with
Hitler - Prokofiev’s tremendously vital score has certainly
become an orchestral and choral showpiece – exactly, in other
words, the sort of work that Stokowski loved to perform. Predictably,
the exciting Battle on the Ice goes very well, with the
conductor exercising more subtle control over dynamics than
many of his peers, but the spikier and more acerbic Russia
under the Mongol yoke and The Crusaders in Pskov are
also very distinctive.
Groot Omroepkoor are clearly a very fine ensemble. They sing
the Teutonic Knights’ Latin chants well, though, through no
fault of their own, when they come to the Russian language they
cannot match the innate Slavic sensibilities of native ensembles.
Similarly, soloist Sophia van Sante is technically very secure
but somehow fails to generate the visceral thrill we can get
from a Russian mezzo at full throttle. These are, though, minuscule
members of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra were
apparently, after some initial puzzlement at his approach, completely
won over by Stokowski and play their collective hearts out for
him, whether in the unfamiliar miniature Ravel overture (apparently
considered of so little significance that it even fails to win
a listing on the disc itself!) or the more frequently performed
works. Captured in first class sound and with complete clarity,
they were clearly a very competent band who responded with the
most intense concentration to their guest conductor’s no doubt
characteristically fluttering fingers. Stokowski subsequently
responded by thanking them “for the brilliant, powerful, sensitive
and flexible concerts you played…” and, on the basis of this
CD, every one of those adjectives was most certainly justified.
some very interesting booklet notes by David Patmore, this disc
becomes an essential purchase – not just for Leopold Stokowski’s
large (and growing) body of admirers but also for those who
love this music and for whom these revelatory accounts should
be required listening.