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Leopold Stokowski
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Scheherazade Op. 35 (1888)
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Marche Slave Op. 31 prefaced by a spoken introduction by Stokowski
Stokowski in rehearsal; taped during the Scheherazade recording sessions [21.38]
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 22 September 1964 at the Kingsway Hall (Rimsky-Korsakov) and 15 June 1972 at the Royal Albert Hall (Tchaikovsky)
CALA CACD 0536 [78.40]


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In my book you can never have too many Stokowski-Scheherazades. This one, the famous - the infamous – Phase 4 LSO recording of 1964 has been remastered to ever more spectacular effect and now joins the serried ranks of the two Philadelphia (1927 and 1934), the Philharmonia in 1951 (currently on Testament) and the late RPO recording of 1975 (I won’t clog up the review with details of the isolated movements Stokowski recorded between 1919 and 1927).

The 20 channel system had its enthusiastic adherents, many American and Japanese; the wide separation with microphones on top of the instruments created a sound perspective of astounding immediacy, truly, as claimed, a sonic spectacular. There was greater resistance in Britain where Phase 4 had something of a chequered history - certainly in critical terms – and many preferred Stokowski’s last traversal of Scheherazade with the RPO (again with Erich Gruenberg as the seductive solo violinist) for precisely those reasons of mellowness of perspective and a natural sounding balance even if there were some problematical areas of interpretation. Nevertheless one remains amazed by the sound of the Phase 4 recording in all its flamboyance and glamour. The string entries are massive boulders of sound and the trumpets’ blistering glare is enough the strip wallpaper at twenty yards. To all this in The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship Stokowski encourages a gorgeous cellistic cantilena, strong on sob and feeling. Proof of the immediacy of the mike placements comes in the harp passages – as, later the triangle and cymbals - where they leap out at one explosively. Interpretatively one can admire the rubati of the wind principals and the dainty clip Stokowski encourages in the strings’ phrasing, idiosyncratic and personalised and exciting. There’s plenty of lyricism and swing in the third movement with some truly gorgeous violin tone and the finale is intensely evocative and powerful - trumpets are thrilling and the strings’ sheen almost luminous. There are of course a fair number of Stokowskisms, which you will either appreciate or reject, but the central consideration will be the recording.

The rehearsals for the recording were also taped and we have here twenty-one minutes or so. They show, as expected, a master psychologist at work. He begins by attending to balance problems, adding that he wants a good recording not a "mechanical" one. He is a crisp rehearser, brisk with recording engineers, after so many years knowing precisely what he wants. As for the so-called Polish accent, well he sounds precisely what he was - an English born musician who had spent many years in America. He has some amusing things to say about tea breaks but shows his canny side with the words "splendid, wonderful, but a few things we can make better" which he then proceeds to do, admonishing the players for practising when they should be listening to him and making patching as easy as possible for himself, the players and the engineers. His humour is also in evidence, especially when he chides the players for not playing with passion, wondering aloud whether they ever get excited.

His 90th birthday was celebrated with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, from which comes a kaleidoscopic performance of Marche Slave complete with off mike introduction from conductor to adoring audience. There’s a fine booklet note, as ever with Cala.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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