I’ll be honest. If I had heard this disc without knowing in advance that it was conducted by Leopold Stokowski, it would probably have seemed no more than a rather eclectic collection of orchestral “pops”. While clearly performed with great competence and even flair, these recordings are so inevitably compromised by the technological limitations of the time (1917-1924) as to be of negligible artistic significance.
So does the fact that I now know
it to have been conducted by one of the half dozen or so of the greatest practitioners of the twentieth century alter its significance? Well, I think that it probably does, if not necessarily for the obvious reasons.
As is well appreciated, the acoustic technology of the early and mid-1920s was generally unable to cope with recording anything other than severely reduced orchestral forces. Moreover, its perceived inability to record certain timbres – though actually, as we now appreciate, rather the fault of deficiencies in the reproducing
equipment of the time – often led producers to interfere, sometimes quite drastically, with the balance of orchestral forces. As a result, there was far less opportunity for conductors to record anything on disc that resembled an accurate sonic profile of their orchestras – and that was a particularly significant limitation for Stokowski who had already done a great deal to nurture and establish his characteristic “Philadelphia sound” in the concert hall.
In fact, as I have previously pointed out elsewhere (see here
) while the soon-to-be-introduced electrical recording technology offered all conductors a greater chance to shine, it gave especially significant opportunities to Stokowski. Fortuitously – and increasingly, as the new technology developed even further – it flattered his own preferred sound picture. Thus, the contrast between these acoustic recordings and the electrical recordings of just a few years later is arguably greater in his case than with almost any other of his contemporaries.
So, is there any reason whatsoever to value these recordings? Ought we not simply to consign them to the dustbin of history and to concentrate instead on listening to the slightly later recordings that more accurately preserve the sounds that Stokowski was actually making in the concert hall?
While that argument may have a certain logic to it, there is, in fact, a great deal to enjoy here, once one accepts as inevitable the artistic compromises that were necessary to set down these recordings at all.
The most enjoyable recordings for me were the ones in which Stokowski goes typically over the top. The Weber Invitation to the dance
is, for instance, tremendous fun, with accomplished contributions from a solo cellist and bassoonist and a wonderfully foot-tapping - and very much of its era - oom-pah-pah
rhythm underscoring the waltz section. Gounod’s Faust
waltz is also given with huge flair and panache, while the fifth and sixth of Brahms’s Hungarian dances exhibit some very exciting volatility and the Philadephia Orchestra’s portamento
string playing has a suitably “gypsy” sound.
The Russian repertoire is generally successful, too. The Rimsky-Korsakov – a composer for whom his repeated recordings of Scheherazade
indicate that Stokowski had a special affection – is vigorous and full of flair; Liadov’s piece makes an impact in spite of its brief duration; and the Stravinsky – pretty adventurous programming for the time, given the innate conservatism of the record-buying public – also comes off well in spite of sonic limitations that prevent the Firebird
finale, for instance, from making its real impact.
Elsewhere, however – in the Wagner extracts, the Grieg, the Beethoven, the Thomas and a singularly heavy-footed Mozart - Stokowski can be surprisingly “straight”, not to say quite bland, in his interpretations, so that one suspects that his heart may not have been quite so fully engaged for those sessions.
These are valuable historical documents – perhaps just as much for what they show that Stokowski wasn’t
doing at this period of his career as for what he was
. For largely technical reasons, up as far as 1924 he simply wasn’t able to utilise the recording medium to his advantage in the way that he could just a few years later.
As such, therefore, the cover image of Stokowski on this disc has been judiciously selected. Here for once we don’t see the wild haired, inspired mesmerist of the 1930s and beyond. Instead, there is a rather neatly dressed young man, very much a product of his time and still awaiting the opportunity to create a unique and immortal position for himself in the history of recorded music.