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Stokowski conducts scenes from French and Russian opera
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Samson et Dalila (1877) – highlights [62.32]
Act 1 Scene 1 – arrêtez!
Act 1 Scene 6 – Printemps qui commence
Act 2 Scene 1 – Amour! Viens aidez ma faiblesse
Act 2 Scene 2 – La victoire facile
Act 2 Scene 2 – Se pourrait-il?
Act 2 Scene 3 – Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
Act 3 Scene 1 – Vois ma misère
Act 3 Scene 2 – Bacchanale
Act 3 Scene 3 – Gloire à Dagon
Risë Stevens (mezzo soprano) – Delilah
Jan Peerce (tenor) – Samson
Robert Merrill (baritone) – High Priest
The Robert Shaw Chorale
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Recorded in New York, September 1954
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Eugene Onegin [14.03]
Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Licia Albanese (soprano) – Tatiana
Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in New York, February 1951
CALA CACD 0540 [76.35]

Cala has contributed a long line of profoundly successful Stokowski reissues over the years and it continues its revivifying services in this coupling of operatic excerpts from 1951 and 1954. As we have seen before Stokowski did venture at least occasionally into operatic repertoire and when he did so the results could be highly persuasive. This could encourage all manner of "what if" speculation as to particular works and missed opportunities to commit chunks of it to his discography – and to posterity. The fact remains that he didn’t and we must rest content with what we do have.

One of the things we have is this problematic Samson from 1954. In his huge biography of the conductor the late Oliver Daniel remarked that the recording got off to a bad start. Robert Merrill was delayed by bad traffic and Stokowski, not a man to be kept waiting, duly gave him a public dressing down. Risë Stevens admitted that, whilst she admired him, she didn’t have especially pleasant experiences of working with him – though she was pleased enough with the recording, but had expressed a preference for other takes to be used (and was over-ruled). Only Jan Peerce seems to emerged unscathed, though if he did bear the brunt of any displeasure we don’t seem to have heard about it. Ironically in the circumstances it’s Merrill who emerges with the greatest vocal honours intact. Stevens has a worrying tendency to slide up to the note and even when she gets there her pitch wavers. The "fat" on the voice is an acquired taste here (and I’ve yet to acquire it), much less the impression that much of her chest singing sounds insufficiently supported. Against that one should note that she can be vividly fiery and has a commanding presence. Which makes the rather pallid impression of her Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix all the more perplexing.

Jan Peerce is a butch Samson though one located somewhere further west of Paris. Somewhere like Chicago, perhaps. This was not Peerce’s finest hour on records and his hectoring and sometimes crude singing are perishable features of this highlights set. No, Merrill is the finest of the trio and I liked La victoire facile where he shows authority, a firmly centred baritone and a degree of characterisation that his colleagues fail to muster.

Stokowski is at his most genial, sympathetic also romanticised. His little wind and string etchings attest to his commitment. He can also whip up his – good – choir and orchestra when necessary. Sample the burnished curve of some of his conducting in the Act III Bacchanale for an example of this affinity, though doubters may note that he enforces some cuts in the sections he has recorded and that many listeners may prefer a rather more tensile conductor at the helm.

Coupled with the highlights Samson is Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin and sung by Licia Albanese, who we know got on better with Stokowski than the unfortunate Merrill and Stevens. She can get rather shrill at the top of her compass and the performance is not – in truth – really very idiomatic but Stokowski’s Slavic affiliations are evident as they invariably were, especially in Tchaikovsky.

The Samson was available on a long-gone Stokowski Society LP (LS15) but the Albanese Tatiana has been out on RCA/BMG GD60384. Cala’s transfers sound first rate and for Stokowski admirers it’s good to welcome this coupling back to the fold. To be blunt I think its attractions beyond that are somewhat limited.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Robert Farr

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