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LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI - Decca Recordings 1965-1972

CD1
Transcriptions

1 Johann Sebastian BACH: Toccata and Fugue in D minor
2 BACH: Prelude in E flat minor
3 BACH: Geistliches Lied: Mein Jesu (Schemelli’s Gesangbuch)
4 BACH: Chorale prelude: Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott ("Giant Fugue")
5 BACH: Chorale from Easter cantata
6 BACH: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor
7 BYRD: Pavan, The Earl of Salisbury and Galliard (after Francis Tregian)
8 Jeremiah CLARKE: Trumpet voluntary (Howard Snell solo trumpet)
9 Franz SCHUBERT: Moment musical No.3 in F minor
10 Fryderyk CHOPIN: Mazurka in A minor, op.17 no.4
11 Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY: Chant sans paroles
12 Henri DUPARC: Extase (David Gray solo horn)
13 Sergei RACHMANINOV: Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3 no.2
14 Claude DEBUSSY: La Cathédrale engloutie
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra [1]-[6], [13]
London Symphony Orchestra [7]-[12]
New Philharmonia Orchestra [14]
CD 2
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY
Symphony No.5 in E minor, op.64

1 I Andante – Allegro con anima
2 II Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
Alan Civil (horn solo)
3 III Valse: Allegro moderato
4 IV Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace
5 SCRIABIN: Le Poème de l’extase, op.54
New Philharmonia Orchestra [1]-[4]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra [5]
CD 3
César FRANCK

Symphony in D minor

1 I Lento — Allegro non troppo
2 II Allegretto
3 III Allegro non troppo
Edward ELGAR
Variations on an Original Theme, op.36 "Enigma"

4 Theme (Andante)
5 I C.A.E. (Andante)
6 II H.D.S.-P. (Allegro)
7 III R.B.T. (Allegretto)
8 IV W.M.B. (Allegro di molto)
9 V R.P.A. (Moderato)
10 VI Ysobel (Andantino)
11 VII Troyte (Presto)
12 VIII W.N. (Allegretto)
13 IX Nimrod (Adagio)
14 X Dorabella: Intermezzo (Allegretto)
15 XI G.R.S. (Allegro di molto)
16 XII B.G.N. (Andante)
17 XIII *** Romanza (Moderato)
18 XIV E.D.U. Finale (Allegro) 5:15
Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra [1]-[3]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra [4]-[18]
CD 4
Hector BERLIOZ
Symphonie fantastique

1 I Rêveries — Passions (Largo — Allegro agitato)
2 II Un bal (Valse: Allegro non troppo)
3 III Scène aux champs (Adagio)
4 IV Marche au supplice (Allegretto non troppo)
5 V Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat (Larghetto — Allegro)
6 La Damnation de Faust — Danse des sylphes
Maurice RAVEL

7 Fanfare — L’éventail de Jeanne
Daphnis et Chloë — Suite No.2

8 I Lever de jour
9 II Pantomime
10 III Danse générale
New Philharmonia Orchestra [1]-[5]
London Symphony Orchestra [6], [8]-[10]
London Symphony Chorus [8]-[10]
Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra [7]
CD 5
Igor STRAVINSKY

L’Oiseau de feu — Suite
1 I Introduction
2 II Dance of the Firebird
3 III Round dance of the Princesses
4 IV Infernal dance of King Kastchei
5 V Lullaby
6 VI Finale
Claude DEBUSSY

7 Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La Mer

8 I De l’aube a midi sur la mer
9 II Jeux de vagues
10 III Dialogue du vent et de la mer
Olivier MESSIAEN
L’Ascension — Quatre méditations symphoniques pour orchestre

11 I Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père (Très lent et majestueux)
12 II Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel (Bien modéré, clair)
13 III Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale (Vif et joyeux)
14 IV Prière du Christ montant vers son Père (Extrêmement lent, ému et solennel)
London Symphony Orchestra
DECCA ORIGINAL MASTERS LIMITED EDITION 475 145-2 [5CDs: 78.14+69.48+75.33+65.13+80.38]

The charisma and daring of Leopold Stokowski lives on to this day. Although born in London on 18 April 1882 he was the least ‘British’ of conductors. I doubt he learnt his flamboyance at the Royal College of Music yet that is where he studied. His first significant orchestra was the Cincinnati where he was conductor for three brief years (1909-12). His next stop was Philadelphia where he put down roots for twenty-four years. The Philadelphia made Stokowski and Stokowski made Philadelphia. The Festival of Britain saw Stokowski’s return to conducting in the UK for the first time since 1912. Although something of a gypsy after his stormy departure from Philadelphia Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra and worked often with youth orchestras across the world. His gorgeous OTT orchestral transcriptions became a ‘signature’ for the man. He continued his advocacy of twentieth century music as he had to the point of dictatorial teaching while at Philadelphia. In his final years he recorded often in London for Desmar, Sony, Everest and Decca. This set enshrines his Phase Four work for Decca - a garish technique for a conductor himself an advocate of gaudy colours and the intoxication of opulent sound.

Lushly coloured and often retouched music-making was the order of the day with Stokowski. This generously packed box of five discs (each in its own card sleeve) offers his trademark approach, unshakeably confident and belligerently gripping. If you have been reared on sane, refined, neatly sustained readings of the great classics by Haitink, Böhm, Davis, Jochum or Boult the day will come when you will want an adventure; that is what each of these recordings is. Stokowski may phrase and balance things is a surprising way. He might sometimes offend you with his adjustments and re-colourings but he will not bore you. You get the impression that every single iota of each score has been calculated, freshly envisioned and then let loose in spontaneity and often awe.

The first disc starts with his ‘signature’ the Toccata and Fugue in D minor which glows and smiles, glares and gibbers, rocks and roars. Perhaps hear this first to make sure that you want the set as a whole. If you like the approach you will like the rest.

This is a section of the Stokowski legacy that was much derided because of its zoomed-in Phase Four recording technology. This entailed intimate microphone placement and a twenty channel mixer desk. The result was highly detailed, not natural but having plenty of physical, sensual and emotional impact. Reviewers at the time were either dismissive or uncomfortable with the technology although one wonders whether much would have been said if Decca had not branded the line so prominently and made Phase Four a unique selling point. It must have had some perceived success if only because EMI Classics responded with its own short-lived Studio Four line.

Decca's engineers certainly piled the tension on to those analogue tapes and I hear some congestion in the fire-hose pressure of the sobbing massed violin writing in the Corale from Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn (*tr.5 CD1). The conductor’s orchestration of the BWV582 Passacaglia and Fugue is at first so dark that you could swear Balakirev's Thamar might have had a hand in the proceedings. Stokowski seems, in this work, to be building a bridge across the golden firmament such is its majestic awe and regal pacing.

The Byrd Pavan is likewise gorged with romantic feeling although Howard Snell's trumpet is not as lithe and smoothly produced as it might have been on a better day. Stokowski is much more at ease in the tremblingly gracious Schubert Moment Musical No. 3, given a decidedly Straussian lilt. This might even have passed muster as to a Beecham lollipop. The Chopin Mazurka in A Op.17 No. 4 is coloured as if a companion on the one hand to Ravel's Pavane and on the other to Debussy's Faune. Tchaikovsky's Chants sans parole Op. 49 No. 6 sounds authentically Tchaikovskian perhaps because Stokowski's sympathies are much closer to Tchaikovsky’s in the first place. It is however the least memorable of these small pieces. The Duparc Extase has David Gray's solo horn in the place of the singer's line. It is al done with yearning sweetness seemingly irradiated with a golden glow. After so much serenity and light the orchestration of Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2 is a welcome contrast for its fantastic atmosphere painting - what would he have made of the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux (of course Respighi another super-colourist beat Stokowski to it with five of those) or to the Medtner Skazki. Stokowski here shows lessons learnt from the Rachmaninov works he championed such as the Third Symphony as well as ladling on the starry treatment. Hearing his way with La Cathédrale Engloutie one wishes he might have taken some recorded interest in Griffes’ Pleasure Dome - the read-across is clear although the Hollywood light is also evident. The deep bell tones are touched in iron and golden glory by the brass and by the tense trembling of the massed violins.

The Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky does not have the instantaneous and totally sustained grip of Monteux with the LSO in Vienna but is not far behind. Stokowski is quite understated at first - almost modest - much the same as he is in the finale. Gurgling woodwind figures are flattered by the Phase Four process which is presumably little more than calculated spotlighting and level adjustment. The recording is very good and the New Philharmonia are on form to match. This is not as febrile as Mravinsky in the same work but it is full of feeling as the stately andante cantabile complete with Alan Civil's solo French Horn, tells us. By the way I loved Decca's long long pause between the end of the third movement and the start of the finale which has a satisfyingly squat growl to the brass. There are eccentric moments as in the mannered brass adumbration at 9.45 in the finale and 12.40 where Stokowski adds a ‘yip’ to the brass that I have never previously heard. In fact the presence and accentuation of the brass sometimes suggests an approach like a high cholesterol Capriccio Italien on steroids.

We change orchestra and locale to the Czech Phil and to Prague's luxuriantly detailed Rudolfinum for a Stokowski speciality: Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Stokowski and Decca assure us of transparently intimate focus on the many soloistic lines. This is a performance that swoons and vapours. There the priapic trumpet is heard crying in defiant and heaven-clawing pride - as Flecker said - riding secure the cruel skies. Such a pity that the Czech Phil's first trumpet, who injects a trace of central European 'bray', remains uncredited - who was it? Very special! What on earth would Stokowski have made of Bax's voluptuous Spring Fire or indeed Szymanowski's diaphanously scored Harnasie or Song of the Night.

The third CD is allocated to the Franck Symphony and Elgar's Enigma. The Franck is given a fine performance with stunning detail communicated in a work that conventionally rather opaque and congested. The textures sound almost Ravel-like in the central movement, such is Stokowski's sense of time and place. Delicacy of touch gives ground to the sweep and intoxication of the finale with its fine tune spun and re-spun. Franck spends that tune like a child in a sweet shop all in one uninhibited splurge and then lets it run back and forth through the allegro non troppo alongside reminiscences of the other two movements.

The Czech Phil are unlikely partners for the Stokowski Enigma. However this goes tenderly if not absolutely tidily in H.D.S-P. The Ysobel movement is taken more rapidly than usual - it feels breathless. Hearing the rapid ascent of the brass in Troyte at 00.25 I regret that Stokowski did not have a go at the Elgar Second Symphony while he was in Prague. The Romanza goes with such a steady lilt that it loses direction. The EDU finale has plenty of spit and polish - not band-master stuff but fiery. The grand theme for ‘our hero’ (how much more palatable than Strauss in Heldenleben) portrays a believable Elgar who can laugh, and grieve as well as take eager delight (tr. 18 2.01) in his creative powers.

Stokowski's Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique is more mannered than the famous Beecham recording (now on EMI’s GROC) but it is full of details that catch the attention. The New Philharmonia in the Kingsway Hall retain a silkiness to their string tone where a hardness can be heard with the Hilversum Radio Phil. Listen to the repeated swirling high violins at 6.10 where not a hint of shrillness enters the reckoning. Mannered or not it is gorgeous even heard now after the passage of 35 years. What a revolutionary work too. No wonder Stokowski, the experimenter and pioneer, recorded it. The multiple harp descent at 00.31 simply has to be heard. For all his delight in detail abetted by Phase Four 'zooming', Stokowski keeps control over the architecture. I first noticed analogue hiss, though deeply pressed down, at the awed and haunting start of the Scene au champs. The Marche au supplice starts with the promise of rain, a gun metal sky and glistening cobbles. Stereo effects abound with the guttural double basses and cellos grunting and the left-hand channel catching the squat deep notes of tuba and trombones in a drench of Tchaikovskian doom. The capering familiars and leering sprites are vividly portrayed in the finale. This is a Symphonie Fantastique to be reckoned with. The doom-laden bell strokes at 3.03 confirm the point. Tape print-through is no exclusive province of the amateur as you can hear at 3.31 before the first statement of the dies irae in the finale. This laudanum dream of a piece is caught with spectral energy and phantasmal imagination by Stokowski even if in the last pages it gallumphs rather than flies.

Two lollipops follow. The Berlioz Ballet des Sylphes is gracious and sweet-toned. Ravel's explosively insistent fanfare for the collaborative work L'Eventail de Jeanne is vivid although the principal trumpet of Hilversum orchestra has some real problems with his exposed line.

After the pressurised Fanfare it is a joy to relax into the detail and voluptuary ease and flow of Lever du Jour from the second Daphnis suite. Details leap out at you to beguile and enthuse. This is of a piece with his Scriabin Poème de l’Extase. The debit side of close proximity is that when the great choral statements come they cannot register with as much contrast as you would ideally want … but the effect is there. The range of this exciting recording can be heard in the Pantomime second movement. In the gorgeous Danse générale we hear the influence of the Russian Ballet - a voice close to Stokowski’s heart.

Stokowski makes a slow motion harmonic slaloming dream out of the Introduction to the Firebird Suite (1919 version). The Infernal Dance is shattering even if the sound does beetle over the head of the listener. The accelerations at the end of the Dance go right off the scale. And in the finale at 1.43, 1.50 and 2.00 the whooped horns rasp out their wild music exhorting the orchestra to new mornings and new victories. A special event then even if the continuous in-your-face balance may tire you and bring you back to Dorati and the LSO in his wondrous 1960 performance (Mercury).

The Debussy Faune is taken from a live 1972 RFH concert. It is breathy and sensuous with lashings of flute vibrato which rather dilutes the effect. This recording is so powerful it makes the ideal study companion for the full score. La Mer is taken at a leisurely pace with the high noon shatteringly magnificent - end of tr. 7. The Russian influence (Borodin and Balakirev) is emphasised by Stokowski in the Jeux de Vagues at 00.53 slurred and accented with microscopic attention to detailing. This is a potent La Mer even if a more mainstream recommendation might come from Serge Baudo (Supraphon) or Haitink (Philips).

The only work in this five disc set that reaches towards modernity is the Messiaen L'Ascension. Originally written for organ (now there's a surprise) Messiaen orchestrated the piece in 1935. Stokowski relishes the piled-on slow skidding string cascade of the Prière du Christ (tr.14) and makes me wonder what he might made of Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

You could do a great deal worse than give this box to someone about to set out on the journey through classical music. There is nothing ascetic or bleached out in this set in which each CD is packed close to capacity. Of course this is also de rigueur for Stokowskians who will find that many of these recordings have not previously been issued on CD. The music overflows with gorgeous orchestral colours. It is the aural equivalent of a box of luxury Belgian chocolates. All the usual health warnings apply but overall this is a lovely set which is bound to make new friends for Stokowski. Heard with the recently released Cala CD of the Phase Four Scheherazade this introduces or reminds listeners to Stokowski's phenomenally sensual range as well as his gift for visceral excitement.

Rob Barnett



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