Scanning the programme
for the May 1974 concert now reissued on BBC Legends seasoned
Stokowski collectors may well be noting the existence of BBCRD9107.
Back in 1995 the Radio Classics imprint released the
concert – minus the 1964 Nováček – wholesale. It’s a funny
thing but what then seemed reasonable enough sound quality now
turns out to have been more than somewhat less so. Running the
old BBC transfer alongside the new one effected by Paschal Byrne
of the Audio Archiving Company has been an instructive experience
and is one of the reasons that I would encourage those of you
who still possess the Radio Classics disc to try this
new one. Whether you will want to fork out for the privilege
is a question only you can answer but I have to say that this
performance of the Brahms Fourth seems to me to be the most
exciting, galvanizing and convincing of all Stokowski’s efforts.
If that tips the balance, well and good.
Now for those transfers.
The gains in detail and transparency are significant. What was
murky and frankly turgid has now become lighter and clearer;
there’s far greater depth all round and the string choirs are
separated with maximal clarity. You can hear the solo strings
in the VW as one rather failed to do back in 1995. I don’t hear
any edginess as a result of the 20 bit digital remastering and
nor do I find the newly scrubbed tapes anything other than a
The VW is a performance
of almost ethereal and slowly refined beauty. It doesn’t materially
differ from the Library of Congress performance enshrined on
Bridge 9074 given with the Symphony of the Air, but the vast
Royal Albert Hall makes a huge contrast to the LC’s boxier acoustic.
The resultant tonal qualities are very different. The 1975 EMI
recording with the RPO was perhaps less impressive. As a matter
of fact I find Stokowski’s performance of his fellow student’s
work far too languid and voluptuous but taken on its own terms
one could hardly imagine it being done better.
The Brahms is a
remarkable example of Stokowski’s employment of fluid tempi.
Sometimes the New Philharmonia is marginally caught out by some
of the more abrupt transitions but by and large they follow
Stokowski well. One of the features of his last years was the
determination to press tempi; sometimes he was goaded either
by friends or family and the result could border on the manic.
There are indeed moments when the phrasing borders on the breathless.
But turn back to the 1931 recording now on Music & Arts
and we find that the slow movement has actually broadened in
the Albert Hall and it’s only the finale that is measurably
and appreciably quicker. I prefer this 1974 reading to that
1931 and also to the 1933; both have been widely admired however.
His 1941 performance is also on Music & Arts, whilst another
1941 traversal has survived; the 1974 RCA/BMG recording does
sound relatively static when measured against the adrenalin
fuelled dynamism of the live concert and I can’t really recommend
it. As I say this live one is the Stokowski Fourth I’d take
with me – yes and that includes the accelerandi, wonderfully
full-on horn sound, the inter-movement applause, the cracked
horn in the slow movement, the audience splutters and coughs,
the vibrant percussion detail and all. If you want dynamism,
The Ravel exists
in several versions – the 1934 Philadelphia, 1957 LSO on EMI,
and a couple of live performances from 1959. Here despite the
improved restoration work I’d opt for the Philadelphia. Not
that the NPO’s performance is poor – it’s still a splendid example
of control and phantasmagorical indulgence with Feria
being the most gorgeous, exciting and pulsating example of all.
Otto Klemperer had died about ten months before the concert
and his old orchestra plays the not-really-so-brittle 1915 Waltz
from his opera Das Ziel with real affection. At last
one can hear details of the solo violin line that were pretty
much obscured in the older transfer. And to end there’s the
1964 LSO Nováček in Stokowski’s ebulliently naughty 1940
I think you can
more-than-infer by now that the advances in restoration work
mean that this is a very viable purchase even if you already
have that older BBC disc. I’d buy it for Brahms Four on its