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Leopold STOKOWSKI (1882-1977): Great Conductors of the 20th Century
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony no. 1 (1899)
National Philharmonic Orchestra. Rec. West Ham Central Mission, London, 2nd, 4th, 5th Nov 1976
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony no.2 "The Four Temperaments" (1902)
Danish State Symphony Orchestra. Rec. live, Odd Fellow Palæt, Copenhagen,4th Aug 1967
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Handel in the Strand (1932)
Country Gardens (1908-18)
Shepherd’s Hey (1911)
Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra. Rec. The Manhattan Centre, New York City, 31st May 1950
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
La Péri – Fanfare (1912)
Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra. Rec. Riverside Plaza Hotel, New York City, 12th Feb.1957.
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Tragic Overture, op.81 (1881)
National Philharmonic Orchestra. Rec. Abbey Rd. Studios, London, 9th April 1977
Franz LISZT(1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody in F minor, S359 No.1 (date unknown)
Members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Rec. The Manhattan Centre, New York City, 10th Feb. 1955
Joaquin TURINA (1882-1949)
La oración de torero, op.34 (1925)
Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra. Rec. Riverside Plaza Hotel, New York City, 19th Feb.1958.
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Escales – Symphonic Poem (1924)
Orchestre National de la Radioffusion Française
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1859): Love Music
Philadelphia Orchestra. Rec. Broadwood Hall, Philadelphia, Feb. 25th 1960
Reinhold GLIERE (1875-1956)
The Red Poppy – Concert Suite op.70, Russian Sailors’ Dance (1927)
Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra. Rec. Riverside Plaza Hotel, New York City, 14th Feb.1953.
National Philharmonic Orchestra; Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra; Members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra; Philadelphia Orchestra; Orchestre National de la Radioffusion Française; Leopold Stokowski and His Orchestra; Percy Grainger/Leopold Stokowski
Great Conductors of the 20th Century
EMI CLASSICS/IMG ARTISTS 7243 5 75480 2 1 [2CDs: 78:43+78:45]


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These fascinating CDs raise the inevitable subject of the conflict between spirit and letter in the interpretation of music. Stokowski was renowned, some would say notorious, for taking liberties with the music he conducted, though on the basis of most of these recordings, he didn’t do as much of this as we might have been led to believe. What is clear is that he remained to the end a conductor with exceptionally strong communicative powers, and that he used these in a wide range of music, often by contemporaneous or recent composers.

CD1 starts with a powerful reading of Sibelius’ First Symphony, recorded with the National Symphony Orchestra – a British free-lance band of high quality – in West Ham Central Mission in November 1976. This symphony, so much the weakest of the composer’s seven, benefits greatly, to my ear, from the Stokowski treatment. The recording is more than acceptable for its time, and conductor and players give it all they’ve got. Stokowski is strong on detail, too; listen to the clear bass notes from the harp at the beginning of the Andante (CD1 track 2), or the numerous important utterances from the tuba, an instrument which in Sibelius always seems to suggest the appearance of some dark monster from the nether reaches of Norse mythology.

The first movement is given a very fine and controlled performance. Stokowski emphasises not only the drama and the passion, but also the importance of symphonic growth, which was to become Sibelius’ guiding principle. In the long development section, (track 1, around 5:18 to around 8:00), I was struck more than ever before by its resemblance to the second part of the first movement of Symphony no.5; that sense of disparate fragments of music being slowly drawn together and assembled. The technique is used to far greater effect in the later work, but the seeds are here.

The Andante is potentially more controversial, in that Stokowski adopts a very steady tempo, arguably ignoring the composer’s qualification of the word Andante with ma non troppo lento, i.e. ‘but not too slow’. Many listeners will find, I think, that the opening drags more than a little, though there is a compensating intensification of the sense of sadness and loss which pervades this lovely movement, and, as in the preceding track, Stokowski’s sense of the growth of the music is very sure. The Scherzo is appropriately vigorous, though timpani are perhaps rather too violent! Stokowski clearly relishes the colourful scoring of the Trio, with its serenading horns and harp glissandi spurting upwards like geysers. The finale is more convincing than usual; again, the conductor encourages the players to ‘go for broke’, so that the occasional uncertainties of the music seem less significant, and the ‘big’ tune – and what a great tune it is – seems to arise inevitably out of the musical expression.

The recording of the Nielsen Second Symphony was made live at a concert in Copenhagen in 1967. There are some rough edges in the playing of the Danish State Symphony Orchestra, but generally the performance is good There is a particularly impassioned version of the third movement, the Andante malincolico, to my mind the finest movement of the four. Overall, the symphony shows that Nielsen was still short of the mastery he was to achieve in the Sinfonia Espansiva. The symphony is based around the novel idea of embodying one of the human ‘temperaments’ in each of the four movements. So we have a ‘colleric’ first movement – angry and tempestuous – a ‘phlegmatic’ second – good-natured and humorous – a ‘melancholy’ third, as mentioned above, and a ‘sanguine’ finale. This last was clearly the one Nielsen found hardest to portray, and it ends in a rather vacuous triumphalism, with a march that brings to mind some of Elgar’s less distinguished pot-boilers!

The three little Grainger ‘lollipops’, recorded in New York in 1950, constitute a real historic curiosity. In 1949, Stokowski wrote to Grainger, who had been resident in the USA since 1915, by the way – to ask if he would make some new arrangements of some of his most popular short works, making use of (in Stokowski’s words) "…such instruments as Vibraharps, Marimbaphones, Saxophones, Celestes…" giving the "impression of music played and danced on the village green". Quite apart from his imperfect grasp of organology, what on earth made Stokowski associate, even in his wildest dreams, saxophones and "vibraharps" etc. with the village green?! I don’t know, but the arrangements are typically delightful and are well captured here, though some of the tuned percussion playing is far from the standard we expect as the norm today.

CD2 is much more of a pot-pourri. Starting with the well-known fanfare from Dukas’s ‘La Péri’, it continues with a recording of the Brahms Tragic Overture made in 1977. This must surely be one of Stokowski’s very last studio sessions, as he was 95 at the time, and died just five months later. No sign of waning powers in the music, though; this is a fresh and vigorous performance, though not one which gets to the core of this great work. The opening brisk tempo suggests a business-like approach, so that much of the mystery is absent, as is the crucial sense of epiphany at 8:20, where the horns rise like a blessing.

Most of the other items are well played light pieces, though Ibert’s fine Escales (‘Ports of Call’) is well worth having. Odd that this piece doesn’t seem to feature in the catalogue in a modern recording at present (there is a Naxos recording with Takuo Yuasa and one of the Paris orchestras. Ed). Perhaps this issue will help; the three sections evoke in turn Rome, Tunis and Valencia, and the music is fabulously scored and full of delicious and often quite exotic touches of melody and harmony. Perhaps ‘Tunis’ is a bit of a cliché, with its wailing oboe snake-charming away against pizzicato strings, but the vivacity and rhythm of ‘Valencia’ more than compensates for this. These are charming musical post-cards in the manner of Copland’s El Salon Mexico.

But the major item in this second CD is a good old ‘bleeding chunk’ of Wagner, in the shape of the ‘Love Music’ from Tristan und Isolde, stitched together by Stokowski from parts of Acts II and III. The Philadelphia Orchestra plays sumptuously, and it is quite something to hear their ’cello launching into the melody of ‘O sink hernieder’. I’ve always felt that one of the supreme imaginative achievements of the whole opera is Brangäne’s warning aria from her watching-post, with the glorious irony of her words, so full of foreboding, floating on top of the most erotic music the world had heard up to this point in history.

So there is much to admire; but Stokowski was no true Wagnerian, and never conducted the operas complete. The ‘symphonic poem’ created here lacks sufficient contrast, and is like eating your way through not one but two boxes of luxury chocolates at one sitting (do try). Despite the glories, my ear tired by the end, and I did sense that someone at the record company was showing a mischievous sense of humour by following all this excessive sensual indulgence with Glière’s little Russian Sailors’ Dance. Quick, clear the bodies off the stage – here come the corps de ballet!

Notwithstanding, these are wonderful CDs, and remind us of the breadth of Stokowski’s musical achievements and sympathies. He was a unique figure, incapable of turning in a boring or routine performance, and often able to illuminate the expressive essence of the music he loved in an inimitable way.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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