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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Francesca da Rimini Op.32 (1876) [22.42]
Serenade for Strings in C major Op.48 (1881) [28.08]
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. Brent Town Hall, London, October 1974. ADD



The year 1974 saw almost the last of Stokowski’s many thousands of concerts. In one of his last appearances with the LSO he performed this brace of works and shortly after went into Brent (Wembley) Town Hall to record them. The final concert, maybe a touch incongruously, was with the Rouen Chamber Orchestra in Venice in July 1975. Whilst there were no more concerts there were recordings but it must be admitted that this is not one of the greatest examples of the great man’s art.

The Serenade for Strings opens with a marmoreal bass line weighted darkest brown. The tonal contrast with the fiddles is dramatic and sculptured and, if one’s honest, rather blatant. The tempi sound forced and somewhat unstable. The Waltz is the best of the four movements, charmingly pointed and with a certain elegance, though in the Elegy the string colouration sounds uncommonly like Vaughan Williams, of whom of course Stokowski was a contemporary and a distinguished exponent. Despite this however the endemic restlessness of rhythm that was to plague him in his last years makes itself felt. The finale starts very sleepily and is rather ponderous. It was however his only commercial recording of the complete Serenade – an earlier single movement had been issued from a New York performance.

Stokowski recorded Francesca da Rimini three times, firstly with the NYPSO (on Cala) in 1947 and then over a decade later in 1958 with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra (so-called; on Dell’Arte and Vanguard-Omega Classics). Both are preferable to his final London recording. This is the slowest of the three performances as one might expect, given Stokowski’s advanced years, and his grip by some way the loosest. Tempi tend to be rather elastic and incidents can get rather flabby. The opening passages don’t generate the inexorable drive of the 1947 New York performance and later on things do become rather becalmed.

The SACD remastering of the Quad original is exciting but tends to exacerbate a problem with the original set up, which was one of spread and lack of definition and body in the string tone. Tutti weight is nowhere near optimum. Given these drawbacks I’d suggest this is one for the Stokowski completist. 

Jonathan Woolf





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