> Stokowski - Wagner, Vaughan Williams, Schoenberg [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Leopold Stokowski
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1909)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Verklärte Nacht (1899)
The Symphony of the Air/Leopold Stokowski
Recorded in concert at The Library of Congress November 17th 1960
BRIDGE 9074 [63.39]


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Stokowski first conducted at The Library of Congress in 1929 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. With this issue Bridge releases his third and last performance there, over thirty years later with the Symphony in the Air – an orchestra in part derived from the dissolution of the NBC Orchestra after Toscanini’s retirement in 1954. Toscanini and Stokowski had, for an uneasy and short time, been co-conductors of the NBC. The Symphony of the Air initially played conductorless though in its early days Leonard Bernstein had a prominent role in development and direction until, all too soon, it was to disband amid financial problems - three years, in fact, after this Library of Congress concert. A number of names in the orchestra’s personnel for 1960 leap out – the concertmaster was Michael Tree and in the second violins sat Charles Treager. The superb Bernard Zaslav sat at the first desk of the violas. And these are just the string players.

The most exciting feature here is the preservation of the Siegfried Idyll. For all his Wagnerian Syntheses and his overture recordings (four recordings of the Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, four of the Rienzi overture, five of the Walküre Magic Fire Music and so on) incredibly Stokowski never got around to the Siegfried Idyll. This Library of Congress survival is also, so far as I’m aware, the only known broadcast to have emerged and this uniqueness adds lustre to Bridge’s selection. The Idyll itself is phrased with naturalness, simplicity and has numerous delicious touches – the portamento is discreet and sparing and used to heighten the expressive quality of the music. Stokowski shapes the violas and cellos with especial care, weighting them with precise gradations; there is some trumpet blare at climaxes, not helped by the unflattering acoustic that tends to expose lines, and also at such moments the balance does go temporarily awry. But this is overall a very convincing performance and a marvelous addition to the Stokowski discography.

The other two items from the concert were Stokowski favourites and appeared coupled on a Victor LP in 1952. Five versions of the Tallis have survived including this one, dating in time from 1948 to 1975, and three of the Schoenberg, two with His Symphony Orchestra. The Tallis opens quite briskly, animated by strong percussive pizzicati, but suffers somewhat in the unforgiving acoustic – whether this accounts for the rather overemphatic entry points is difficult to say. A little tension is dissipated around the half way mark where there is a little overindulged phrasing though it does rise to a good peak and if the end seems to be resolutely unmoving it’s maybe a feature of the recording as much as Stokowski’s own vision. Verklärte Nacht starts well, with an intense anticipatory tension. At 4.50 the declamatory strings are marked by affectionate clarity and expressive freedom, a characteristic of the performance and an example of the obvious preparation that had gone into the work. He gives a supercharged erotic lift to the passage around 10.00 and by 15.40 he is sonorous and impressive albeit there are some instrumental fudges along the way – this is by no means an immaculate performance and the relative coldness of the location exposes the lapses unmercifully, not least the ensemble slippages. Still, whilst neither the Tallis nor Verklärte Nacht can be said to be essential these 1960 traversals always manage to be useful adjuncts to the commercial recordings. The Siegfried Idyll of course is an essential item for Stokowskians.

Jonathan Woolf


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