Leopold Stokowski spent four seasons (1946-1950)
as the conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New
York, the ancestor of what is now known as the New York Philharmonic.
During that time, he made a number of important recordings, and
this disc represents the third volume of the same, presented here
under the auspices of the Leopold Stokowski Society.
Of particular importance here the Vaughan Williams
Sixth Symphony, which although first heard in the United States
in Boston under Koussevitsky, was given its premiere recording
by Stokie’s New Yorkers. Ever a champion of new music, Stokowski
held Vaughan Williams in particularly high esteem, as they had
been students together at the Royal College of Music in London.
Although Vaughan Williams was ten years older than Stokowski,
they had a long and productive friendship with Stokowski conducting
the American premieres of a number of the composer’s symphonies.
It is immediately evident in this performance
that Stokowski had had ample time to place his indelible imprint
on the New York orchestra. Seldom have I heard the string section
of this ensemble sound so rich and clear. No other conductor has
been able, at least to these ears, to accomplish the clarity of
line, the warmth of tone and the rhythmic tautness that is heard
in this performance. And, Stokowski shows that he was no mere
romantic sentimentalist as he presents this work with all of its
innate drive and dissonance quite intact. Regrettably, Sony was
unable to provide a flawless master, and there is a bit of surface
noise from the transfer discs that makes for a mild annoyance.
On the whole, however, the sound quality is first rate.
Stokowski’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s
Romeo is stunning if not a bit controversial. The conductor rewrote
the ending of the work so that it would end quietly, instead of
with the blaring chords over timpani strikes heard in most readings.
Apparently there is some legitimate historical support for this
approach. Although there is no evidence extant in the composer’s
hand, several reliable sources including the widow of Rimsky-Korsakov
and the composer’s own brother, validate Stokowski’s
As for the performance, it is utterly breathtaking.
How wonderful it is to hear real, honest-to-goodness portamento
in the string sections! This is one of Tchaikovsky’s most
sweeping and dramatic scores, and the New Yorkers play with all
of the soul and storm of a Russian winter in this amazing performance.
The quality of the transfer is above reproach.
The Mozart Haffner comes in at just fifteen minutes,
which would indicate a sizeable amount of editing and some mighty
brisk tempo choices. This doesn’t really detract from the
performance, and the lines are kept clear in spite of the sizeable
string complement. Stokowski was clearly not a classicist, however,
and this performance arrives as more of a curiosity than any profound
statement about the music.
Filling out the disc are two shorter works, the
most interesting of which is the short work by American Thomas
Jefferson Scott, based on folk hymns from the Sacred Harp an 1830s
vintage collection of pioneer folk hymns and spirituals. Transferred
from a V-disc, the records that were produced from 1943-49 especially
for the American servicemen stationed abroad. It is particularly
noteworthy for the brief comments that the composer makes before
the performance itself. Many artists, who made these special recordings,
including such luminaries as Toscanini, Rubinstein and Piatigorsky,
gave spoken personal introductions addressed to the soldiers.
Cala’s production values are rather hit
and miss. Why for example are only two of the composer’s
dates listed in the booklet? Sound quality too is not terribly
consistent, but this can be forgiven due to the varied condition
of the source material.
In all, this is a valuable disc, and for Stokowski
fans in particular it is a vivid portrait of a uniquely talented
artist in his prime. Recommended.