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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Stokowski conducts Percy Grainger Favourites and others
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) Country Gardens* [1:32]; Mock Morris [2:55]; Early One Morning [3:30]; Shepherd's Hey* [1:36]; Irish Tune from County Derry [3:30]; Molly on the Shore [3:26]; Handel in the Strand* [3:45]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Berceuse from The Tempest (arr. Stokowski) [4:59]; Valse Triste from Kuolema [4:30]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [16:03]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Vocalise [7:51]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916) Intermezzo from Goyescas (arr. Otto Langey) [4:46]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Clair de Lune (orch. Stokowski) [5:29]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Escales (Ports of Call) (I. Rome-Palermo; II. Tunis-Nefta; III. Valencia) [14:09]
Leopold Stokowski conducts his Symphony Orchestra
* Percy Grainger (piano)
rec. 31 May, 8 Nov 1950 (Grainger); 15 Mar 1950, 4 Oct 1949 (Sibelius); 3 Sept 1952 (RVW); 25 Feb 1953 (Rachmaninov); 11 Dec 1947 (Granados); 24 May 1947 (Debussy); 11 Feb 1951 (Ibert)
CALA CACD0542 [77:58]

This fascinating and generously filled CD offers a mixed bag of Stokowski studio recordings all of which are of great interest.
 
I’ve been impressed with Stoki’s Vaughan Williams performances both on Cala and BBC Legends and so I was more than a little intrigued to hear his account of the Tallis Fantasia. It starts off with some very sweet, intense string chords. Then I was a little surprised and disappointed that the pizzicato first appearance of the theme is given out pretty straightforwardly, with little sense of mystery. Though the opening pages struck me as being rather fleet, as the performance unfolded the pacing seemed more “conventional” and when I checked I found that Stokowski’s overall timing of 16:03 is not significantly shorter than that of the classic Barbirolli 1963 recording, for long my personal benchmark in this piece. Barbirolli takes 16:13 and even the more sober Boult (EMI 1975) only clocks in at 16:30. What I found a bit more difficult to take was Stokowski’s very emphatic treatment of some accented chords. It’s all of a piece with his passionate, very colourful approach to the work. You won’t find any misty-eyed nostalgia here. Instead, Stokowski sees the work as a rich and pretty romantic outpouring. He draws some tremendous playing from the orchestra (the splendid quartet includes Leonard Rose, no less, as cellist) and for its age the recording is marvellously full-toned with a very sonorous bass line at times. I wouldn’t regard this as a reading for “everyday” but it’s a marvellously individual alternative view. And by the way that’s not a coded way of accusing Stokowski of showmanship. It’s evident in every bar that he believes in and loves the piece.
 
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe the RVW as ‘colourful’ in Stoki’s hands. How much more does that adjective apply to his account of Ibert’s Escales. This is, in every sense, an orchestral showpiece, a riot of colourful and illustrative orchestration and I freely confess I haven’t heard a more persuasive and exuberant recording of it than this one. In fact, the piece could have been written for Stokowski; the colour and the ambience are right up his street. I’ve seen the work described more than once, as it is in the notes accompanying this CD, as a set of musical picture postcards. Well, all I can say is that in Stokowski’s hands we hear “Wish you were here?” writ large. In the first of the three movements, ‘Rome – Palermo’ saturated strings, agile winds, bright brass and a liberal dose of percussion are all welded together quite splendidly by the Maestro. The portrayal of Valencia with which the set concludes is especially vibrant on this occasion, receiving a really full-blooded performance. This performance of Escales shows a virtuoso conductor at work and it’s very exciting to hear.
 
Several other pieces find Stokowski in more reflective mood. The Sibelius Berceuse, arranged - and expanded - by the conductor is lovingly done and if Stokowski wears his heart on his sleeve here then all I can say is ‘why not’? The other Sibelius offering is the famous Valse Triste, which is given a misty performance. There’s a husky tone quality in the string playing, which is no doubt deliberate. Hearing the piece done like this is a powerful and appropriate reminder that early Sibelius is not far removed from the world of Tchaikovsky.
 
Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is just meat and drink to Stokowski. He leads a performance that is full of Slavic nostalgia. This performance, perhaps more than any other on the disc, recalls Stokowski’s glory days in Philadelphia, when Rachmaninov was one of many composers that he championed. I echo Rob Barnett’s reference to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. In fact it’s a matter of huge regret to me that so far as I know there’s no Stokowski recording of that symphony. This reading of Vocalise is most evocative, string swoons and all.
 
Swooning strings are also in evidence in Stokowski’s orchestration of Clair de Lune. To be honest, this is just a bit too OTT, not least in the use of the vibraphone. But even here, the excess stems from affection for the music, one feels.
 
I’ve left till last what is, in many ways, the main attraction of this CD. The notes relate that Stokowski first worked with Percy Grainger in Philadelphia in 1916, when Grainger played the Grieg Piano Concerto for Stokowski. The Maestro also included in his programme a short piece by Grainger, Molly on the Shore. In 1945 the pair were reunited for another performance of the Grieg and once again Stoki played Molly during the concert. Four years later Stokowski invited Grainger to make new arrangements of a few of his pieces specifically for a recording. The two musicians conferred and Stokowski appears to have had quite a lot of input into both the choice of pieces and their new orchestral scorings. What’s remarkable about this story is that at the very time that Grainger was engaged in these new arrangements Stokowski was immersed in a huge enterprise, preparing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for performance with the New York Philharmonic in April 1950; a superb achievement, by the way, which has circulated in various off-air pressings over the years and is now officially available in the NYPO’s boxed CD set, The Mahler Broadcasts. It’s amazing that despite the demands of preparing that vast Mahler symphony Stokowski should have found time to take a close interest in Grainger’s work on these miniatures. Perhaps it served as a valuable and relaxing diversion.
 
Anyway, the pieces were committed to disc, mainly in May 1950, though a couple were set down in the following November. Grainger attended the sessions and played the piano in three of the pieces, most prominently in Handel in the Strand. Without exception these performances, here appearing together on CD for the first time, are marvellous. There’s a tremendous earthly vigour in Country Gardens and an irrepressible joie de vivre is imparted to Shepherd's Hey. On the other side of the coin Stokowski brings to both Early One Morning and Irish Tune from County Derry (the ‘Londonderry Air’) evident loving care and warmth. He clearly relishes all these pieces and it’s no wonder that Grainger was delighted with the results. These may be miniatures but Stokowski pays them the compliment of treating them with as much respect as he would an important symphony. This is just as strong evidence of great conducting as anything on the disc. All aficionados of Grainger’s music should acquire these gems urgently.
 
Cala’s presentation of these recordings is excellent. There are interesting and eminently readable notes by Edward Johnson and the transfers of what were clearly pretty good original recordings have come up superbly. This is a hugely enjoyable CD, which offers further evidence of what a great conductor Leopold Stokowski was. They just don’t make ’em like that any more! Enjoy!

John Quinn

see also review by Rob Barnett


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