> Leopold Stokowski - Mendelssohn/Brahms [JW]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No 4 Italian
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 2
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski, conductor
Recorded Abbey Road, London April-June 1977
CALA CACD0531 [73.43]


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Recorded in 1977 shortly before Stokowski’s death these performances have a linear cogency and articulacy of expression that are little short of remarkable and would be so in any conductor, of any age, at any time, much less one of ninety five. It’s tempting to conjure up the alchemical or the visionary to try to explain Stokowski’s unerring rightness but that is to ignore the obvious evidence of sheer hard work, adroit musical understanding, advanced ear for orchestral sonorities and a lifetime’s experience.

In fact, oddly, Mendelssohn was not a composer who much features in Stokowski’s recorded legacy nor, it has to be said, in his concert programmes. His first conducted the Italian in 1914 in Philadelphia, again in 1917, and this seems to have been the last performance until this 1977 studio recording, a really rather remarkable lacuna. His effortless launching of the Allegro Vivace at a tempo guisto (if you know Cantelli’s live broadcast performance you’ll think it’s a different work) is supremely effective. The string and woodwind choirs are adroitly balanced and for all that this is big band Mendelssohn it is flexible, responsive and superbly mobile music making. The final passages of the first movement are marked by clarity and precision and the control of dynamics in the development section earlier is entirely admirable. Precise articulation and a strongly lyrical impulse inform the slow movement; the balancing is well nigh perfect. The Minuet and trio - the Moderato – features nicely judged layered string writing, and not too much heft in the basses. The Saltarello is invigoratingly alive, a minor key dance of life to which Stokowski responds with tremendous brio.

The Brahms Second Symphony is obviously more a staple of his repertoire. His was, after all, the first American-recorded set of the complete Brahms Symphonies. First performed by Stokowski in Cincinnati in 1912 he’d recorded it in Philadelphia in 1929. As his later Brahms often reveals, clarity and architectural cogency allied to a strong sense of momentum had become hallmarks of Stokowski’s approach. There is a palpable sense of linearity supported by entirely appropriate instrumental weight throughout. The clarinet counterpoint to the string theme in the first movement or the beautifully accomplished entwining melody at 6.30 or the well judged trumpet balancing at 8.40 – never forced, never over bright, never submerged textually – are small, telling and revealing incidents of magisterial control. Listen to the exemplary pizzicatos in the second movement or to its melodic unravelling, the non troppo marking properly observed or indeed to the sensitivity of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, an ad hoc London group of stellar accomplishment. This is a truly remarkable document of an ever-questing musician - first movement exposition repeats taken in both works by the way – whose final recordings are as noble, as understanding and as true as one could ever wish to hear.

Jonathan Woolf

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