The recordings gathered here all come from the period
(1946-1950) when Leopold Stokowski was especially closely connected
with the New York Philharmonic as its Guest Conductor. In the very interesting
liner notes a contemporary member of the NYPO describes him as "authoritarian
and unyielding in his demands". As these recordings show the orchestra
was more than capable of fulfilling those demands. It’s worth quoting
a comment by another member of the orchestra from that era. In the notes
accompanying the fascinating CD collection, The New York Philharmonic,
the Historic Broadcasts, 1923-1987, John Ware (trumpet, 1948-88)
recalls "to me the orchestra always sounded warmer with him than
with anyone else. It had an intensity and emotional contact, and the
free bowing gave the strings an unusual legato quality." I’d say
that the second sentence of that recollection is borne out amply by
what we hear on this CD.
Certainly the intensity and emotional contact are fully
on display in the ‘Flying Dutchman’ overture (track 1). This is a bracing
and fiery opening to the disc, yet it is one in which the cantabile
sections are done equally well. The other Wagner offerings, ‘Stoki’s’
arrangement of ‘Wotan’s Farewell’, followed by the ‘Magic Fire’ music
(track 8) are no less impressive. I had feared that the Farewell, shorn
of its vocal line, might be a strange experience. In the event the sheer
verve and majesty of the playing compensates amply. Perhaps this item
is not for the Wagner purist but sample, if you will, the amazing build
up of volume (and tension) from 2’35" to the great moment of release
at 3’35"; this is a master conductor at work. The entire performance
is distinguished by refulgent strings and noble brass and I thought
it very fine.
I have some reservations about the Messiaen. This was
the first recording of the orchestral version. Indeed, it may well have
been the first recording of the work in either form since the composer’s
own recording of the organ score itself was not made until 1956 and
I am not aware of any earlier versions. One cannot but admire the enterprise
of Stokowski (and Columbia) in recording such a work a mere 16 years
after its completion for this must have seemed a very daring not to
say arcane choice of repertoire at the time.
I have to say, however, that I find the tempo for the
opening movement (‘Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à
son Père’) anything but majestic. Indeed, it is so brisk as to
seem perfunctory (track 3). Stokowski dispatches this noble chorale
in a mere 2’43" where Messiaen himself in his own (organ) recording
takes 6’47". The composer’s broad and stately conception seems
not a second too long. The second movement (‘Alléluias sereins
d’une âme qui désir le ciel’) is also much brisker in Stokowski’s
hands than under Messiaen’s fingers (4’16" against 7’57")
but in this case I prefer Stokowski’s approach and he conjures up some
mesmerising sonorities from the orchestra (track 4). The third movement
(‘Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale’)
exists only in the orchestral version for Messiaen wrote a completely
different movement, ‘Transports de joie’, for the organ version. The
performance by Stokowski and the NYPO is full of exuberant virtuosity.
The concluding ‘Prière du Christ, montant vers son Père’
(track 6) is echt-Stokowski, scored as it is for sumptuous strings.
Once again, he is much faster than the composer, taking 4’46" whereas
Messiaen weighs in at 9’18". However, in this instance I think
both approaches are right. Messiaen can and does justify his extreme
tempo in the context of an ecclesiastical acoustic and with the sustaining
power of the organ. Stokowski, I think, makes an equally correct choice
for strings in the concert hall. Though I have a major reservation concerning
the first of the four movements (which others may not share) the remainder
strikes me as a very fine account.
In 1958 Stokowski made a recording of Francesca
da Rimini (his second) with the Stadium Symphony of New York (a
contractual alias for the NYPO, I believe). That performance, coupled
with an equally fine one of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet constitutes
what is, quite simply, the most incandescent recording of that composer’s
music I have ever heard. (I have it on dell’Arte CDDA 9006.) To be candid,
this 1947 recording, though it has much to commend it, is not in the
same league. The conductor secures virtuosic playing on both recordings
but in 1947 his tempi in the turbulent allegro music, so urgent and
involving in 1958, here seem just a bit too hectic (though the NYPO
is fully up to the challenge). It’s tremendously exciting but the 1958
reading is positively electrifying. The central love music is played
with all the passion you’d expect from Stokowski but even here I think
he has more to offer in 1958. Then there’s the question of the text.
In 1958 he gave the score complete but Richard Gate tells us in his
liner notes that in 1947 the maestro "made a number of brief cuts
in the ‘storm’ music on the grounds that the bars he cut were repetitive."
These cuts and the quicker tempi mean that this 1947 reading takes 18’56"
against 23’12" in 1958. Personally I prefer the later version but
there is plenty of magnetism in this 1947 account also.
The remaining short pieces are all well done. The Ippolitov-Ivanov
is, frankly, a trifle of Russian-oriental hokum but Stokowski relishes
every second of it. The Griffes work, premiered by Stokowski in 1919
during his Philadelphia days, is similarly not a piece of great substance
but once again the conductor lavishes great care on it and secures some
pretty marvellous playing from the New Yorkers. I was interested to
find that the Vaughan Williams ‘Fantasia’ was the original coupling
for Stokowski’s world premiere recording of RVW’s Sixth Symphony (which
he recorded on the same day, 21 February 1949, just two days before
Boult made his first recording of the piece in London.) That Stokowski
reading of the symphony has always seemed to me to be a bit underrated.
Of course, the music of the Fantasia inhabits a completely different
world. It finds Stokowski at his most lyrical, playing the gorgeous
main melody for all it is worth.
To sum up, this is a most interesting collection. Cala
have done a first rate job with the transfers and the original sound
is pretty remarkable for its age. Richard Gates’ notes are excellent.
I enjoyed this compilation hugely and have no hesitation in recommending
see also review
by Jonathan Woolf