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Stokowski - Rhapsodies
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in C sharp minor [8.41]
Georges ENESCO (1881-1955)

Rumanian Rhapsody No.1 in A Op.11 [11.33]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)

Ma Vlast – Vltava [12.21]
The Bartered Bride – Overture [7.04]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde – Act III Prelude [10.13]*
Tannhäuser – Overture and Venusberg Music [25.09]*
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra
Symphony of the Air and Chorus *
Leopold Stokowski
Recorded 1960 and 1961
RCA RED SEAL LIVING STEREO 82876 67903 2 [75.36]

Some of these recordings were amongst the last to be laid down under Stokowski’s exclusive RCA contract. If it seemed then that the contract withered rather than went out with an autumnal glow at least we can savour the performances shorn of the bitterness of the parting. They reappear now under the Living Stereo rubric ushering in another of the Red Seal SACD incarnations and I should add my by now tiresome rider that I’ve listened on an ordinary set-up only.

It certainly registers powerfully in the February 1960 sessions – there’s real bite and drive in the Liszt and the sound spectrum is seemingly vast. The string playing is eloquent and there’s some fine clarinet playing from the wind ranks. This and the other items on the disc were last available in conventional CD format in the vast 14 disc RCA Red Seal Stokowski Collection spanning the years 1943-75, issued in 1997. The Enescu is suffused with folk glissandi, some impressions of native folk instrumentation – in short, colour, vivacity and the requisite succulent melody.

We have two Smetana pieces. Vltava receives an attractive but not outstanding reading. It’s quite leisurely, not a flaw in itself, but when the rhythms aren’t quite sharply enough etched it can hang fire. Attractive though it is it tends to lack ardour in the climaxes and can’t really match the best Czechs – Kubelík, Ančerl, Talich and Jérémias. The overture to The Bartered Bride is an improvement, still not stellar, though one can appreciate how Stokowski animates those inner voices and how well the studio placements capture the torrent of orchestral inner part incident.

The two Wagner examples are certainly more than eloquent proof of Stokowski’s ultimately untapped potential as an operatic conductor, His Wagner was always marvellous and he had control of the long line as well as superlative command of local colour and incident. The winds are noble, Henry Schuman to the fore on the cor anglais, in Tristan. Strings are sometimes barely audible, dynamics are occasionally extreme, and the music making exalted. The Overture and Venusberg Music of Tannhäuser is similarly impressive. Colourful, alive, not too pressing, with relaxed rhythm – though never in any way slack – this recording is enlivened by burnished horns, lissom string textures and a small role for the chorus.

More notable Stokowskian fare, then, in rhapsodic vein for the most part and persuasively successful in the main.

 

Jonathan Woolf

 

 

 



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