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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Fanfare, L’Éventail de Jeanne (1927) [2:15]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1889) [39:24]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cantata, Alexander Nevsky (1939) [36:02]
Sophia van Sante (mezzo)
Groot Omroepkoor
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. De Doelen, Rotterdam, 22 August 1970
MEDICI ARTS MM026-2 [77:58]
Experience Classicsonline

This, let me say right at the beginning, is a wonderful disc. It records a complete concert that Stokowski gave at the age of 88. One might have been prepared for the musical insights of a man who had recorded the second movement of Franck’s symphony almost 50 years earlier in 1922 and who had conducted the first US performance of Alexander Nevsky in 1943. But the sheer vigour, energy and imagination of these performances set down by a man approaching his tenth decade, leaves one - or, at any rate, this one - nonetheless amazed.

As one perceptive Dutch reviewer pointed out at the time, this would “probably be the last time one will hear the Franck symphony under the direction of a conductor who was born before the premiere of 1889 took place”. Putting things into that kind of useful perspective might make one expect an unsurprising, traditional interpretation of music that had, by the middle of the twentieth century, become something of an orchestral warhorse. But here we get nothing of the sort! 

In an earlier review of Stokowski conducting his own Bach transcriptions on disc, I quoted him as once saying that “through imagination, through feeling, through… some instinctive quality that some artists have, we have to try to understand and reproduce and give to the listening public what we consider was in the mind and soul of the composer…”. And it turns out that, asked by orchestra members at rehearsals for this very concert why he was amending Franck’s orchestration, he said much the same thing – that he “didn’t expect César Franck to agree with what he did but, once he heard it, he would have agreed”. 

Some might, of course, see the suggestion that some conductors have a special insight into a composer’s mind, allowing them to go beyond the mere printed notes on the page, as simple egotism. Yet, to Stokowski, there was no automatic dichotomy between the creative composer and the re-creative conductor. To him, both served a higher purpose, with the conductor assuming, if necessary, the responsibility of divining the music’s ideal form that the - perhaps fallible - composer would have set down in the score if only he’d been able to. 

In the case of Franck’s symphony, that meant, in the first place, tinkering with the orchestration. As a transcriber of organ works for full orchestra himself, Stokowski would have been very aware of the frequently made charge that Franck’s orchestration can be so heavy and powerful (organ like?) that it sometimes drowns out significant instrumental voices. Hence he decided, for this concert, to double the parts for the English horn and the contrabassoon. Anticipating his probable requirements, the orchestra had already hired a third harpist before the first rehearsal! 

The second means of “improving” the score, meanwhile, was to be far more flexible with tempi. To an extent, of course, all conductors will have particular quirks in that regard – musical trademarks, if you like, that distinguish their own interpretations from those of others. Just looking at some of the Franck symphonies on my own CD shelves demonstrates how the score has, over the years, seen some quite striking variations in approach. 

Sometimes that is manifested consistently across the whole work. At one extreme, for instance, we have the skittish Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with the fastest timings for every one of the three movements: 16:00/8:48/9:10 – making 33:58 in all. At the other end of the spectrum we find the Carlo Maria Giulini’s very grand, deliberate account with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, recording the slowest times for every single movement at 21:30/12:21/12:50 – no less than 46:41 altogether! 

Even with the less consistently extreme approaches – from, on my shelves, Beecham, Barbirolli, van Otterloo and Monteux – individual conductors will have their personal idiosyncrasies: Barbirolli’s speedier than usual allegretto or van Otterloo’s especially urgent finale. But what is virtually unique to Stokowski’s account is the way in which the tempo variations are so marked, in all three movements, even between one musical phrase and the next. Yet another contemporary reviewer observed that the conductor was willing “to sacrifice such matters as strictness of form and unity of movement so expressly to emotional aspects that the threshold to the sentimental was crossed more than once”. Stokowski, in fact, makes even the notoriously wilful Willem Mengelberg – who gives Paray a good run for his money and even beats him to the finishing line in the finale – look predictable in comparison. 

Many of the characteristics of the Franck performance are also apparent in the Prokofiev. Stokowski clearly revels in – and hence feels far less need to alter - the imaginative orchestration that the composer used to differentiate the participants in the drama. Appropriately harsh dissonance characterises the brutal Teutonic Knights while suitably rich, mellow harmonies illustrate the Russian peasants who resist their aggression. While Eisenstein’s 1938 film may never have become a cinematic blockbuster - Stalin quickly ordered it shelved when he made a temporary pact with Hitler - Prokofiev’s tremendously vital score has certainly become an orchestral and choral showpiece – exactly, in other words, the sort of work that Stokowski loved to perform. Predictably, the exciting Battle on the Ice goes very well, with the conductor exercising more subtle control over dynamics than many of his peers, but the spikier and more acerbic Russia under the Mongol yoke and The Crusaders in Pskov are also very distinctive. 

The Groot Omroepkoor are clearly a very fine ensemble. They sing the Teutonic Knights’ Latin chants well, though, through no fault of their own, when they come to the Russian language they cannot match the innate Slavic sensibilities of native ensembles. Similarly, soloist Sophia van Sante is technically very secure but somehow fails to generate the visceral thrill we can get from a Russian mezzo at full throttle. These are, though, minuscule failings overall. 

The members of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra were apparently, after some initial puzzlement at his approach, completely won over by Stokowski and play their collective hearts out for him, whether in the unfamiliar miniature Ravel overture (apparently considered of so little significance that it even fails to win a listing on the disc itself!) or the more frequently performed works. Captured in first class sound and with complete clarity, they were clearly a very competent band who responded with the most intense concentration to their guest conductor’s no doubt characteristically fluttering fingers. Stokowski subsequently responded by thanking them “for the brilliant, powerful, sensitive and flexible concerts you played…” and, on the basis of this CD, every one of those adjectives was most certainly justified. 

With some very interesting booklet notes by David Patmore, this disc becomes an essential purchase – not just for Leopold Stokowski’s large (and growing) body of admirers but also for those who love this music and for whom these revelatory accounts should be required listening.

Rob Maynard


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