Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1811-12) [37:42]
Symphony of the Air/Leopold Stokowski
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, December 1958
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 (arr. Stokowski) [13:48]
International Festival Youth Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. Ballroom of the Hotel Reine Victoria, St. Moritz, August 1969
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Scherzo (1842) [4:23]
All-American Youth Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. Hollywood, California, July 1941
Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Armide: Sicilienne (arr. Stokowski) [3:05]
Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra
rec. Stage Seven, Samuel Goldwyn Studios, Hollywood, August 1957
David BEN-HAIM (1897-1974)
From Israel - Suite for Orchestra (1951) [18:18]
Symphony of the Air/Leopold Stokowski
Manhattan Center, New York, February 1959
CALA CACD0551 [77:16]
As the final flourish to their Leopold Stokowski series, Cala and the Leopold Stokowski Society offer a collection of recordings from diverse sources, all making their first CD appearances in stereo.
The 1958 Beethoven Seventh is remarkable for the interaction between Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air, the latter basically a continuation of the old NBC Symphony Orchestra. The players' Toscanini training can be felt in some musically appropriate but distinctly non-Stokowskian details: the way the punctuating chords in the symphony's opening measures "bounce" off their attacks, for example, or the violins' aggressive accenting of the first of each of semiquaver group at 3:41. On the other hand, it's definitely Stokowski who's responsible for the full-sounding tuttis, surging if not always neatly coördinated.
Stokowski's clear, forthright interpretation is a fine one. The first movement's springy dotted motif impels the music forward, though the downward unison at 5:45 lapses into a flat-footed 2/4, and the rhythm stays that way into a bit of the development. The second movement is a dignified éloge, neither a keening dirge nor the quick two-step favored nowadays by "period" practitioners. The singing quality of the counter-melody intensifies the mournful depth as the textures expand; only the final pages turn overtly lachrymose. Stokowski balances the Scherzo's bounding motion with sufficient tonal and rhythmic grounding; the Trio flows smoothly, though the conductor rather "milks" the final shift into minor - it's a passing cloud, not a harbinger of emotional breakdown. The finale is steady, not slurry, weighted in a hearty Germanic manner; the "interruptions" beginning at 2:08 are slightly protracted, but there's no problem regaining the previously established momentum. For what it's worth, in this movement, the conductor takes the eight-bar repeats in the theme's opening statement, but omits them later on; this, however, is as nothing next to his wilful cutting of an entire Scherzo-and-Trio repeat on his Decca Phase Four account!
The irony inherent in the Stokowski orchestral realizations of Bach organ works - works with which he undoubtedly became familiar during his training and early career as an organist - is that the conductor-transcriber makes no particular attempt to simulate an organ sound, relying on a variegated wind palette and plush string sonorities to animate the music in its new medium. This reading of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue begins gorgeously, with the International Festival Youth Orchestra offering concentrated playing worthy of a professional ensemble. But as the textures expand, the sonority thickens - the "Stokowski sound" here serves as an all-purpose sonic gauze. A mushy landing at 3:42 presages an increasing proportion of oozing, approximate ensemble, and the lumbering performance runs out of steam long before its literal end.
The 1941 Mendelssohn Scherzo achieves its stereophonic sound almost incidentally. It was apparently recorded with two microphones and on two turntables simultaneously, with each recording intended to serve as a backup for the other. By careful synchronization of the two outputs, engineers at Sony in New York were able to create a modest stereo spread. The resulting sound is marvellously clear, with some depth, in an acoustic a bit drier than elsewhere in this program; a light electronic buzz intrudes from 1:13 to 1:25, though it's only obvious over headphones. The dancing, playful performance is delightful, and crisply played - the only "runny" moment comes as the basses launch the upward run at 2:46.
Stokowski's arrangement for string orchestra of the Gluck Sicilienne, from a flute-and-pizzicato original, offers the best of both worlds stylistically. The stately manner, trim playing, and transparent textures acknowledge the music's Classical origins, yet the tender shaping of the melody lends it a Romantic aura.
Paul Ben-Haim may, as Edward Johnson notes, have "championed a specifically Jewish national music", but his From Israel doesn't sound particularly Jewish, save in Celebration, the fifth of the suite's five movements, which makes extensive use of a mode similar to the Western harmonic minor. Even the central Yemeni Serenade sounds, at most, vaguely Oriental, the composer's study of "Yemeni and Arabic folksong" notwithstanding. The score's rhythmic drive, occasionally angular contours, and mildly dissonant idiom plant it unmistakably in the twentieth century, yet the unabashed melodic content and colorful orchestral palette make it immediately accessible, as does this performance, with sensitive woodwind solos contrasting with the splashy tuttis.
The variegated engineering, overall, comes up surprisingly well. Both New York recordings, the Ben-Haim and the Beethoven, sound over speakers at a lower level than everything else - a volume boost takes care of it - but match the rest over headphones. In the Beethoven, a touch of congestion in the peak pages of the first movement is hardly a reprehensible blemish, considering its age, and detail is clear, and pleasing, when the scoring is only slightly less full. Woodwinds reproduce with lovely depth, and the bass strings come across in all their buzzy, resonant glory. The Ben-Haim suffers a slightly off-kilter mixdown - direct sound and a distant resonance, with nothing in-between - especially noticeable in the lightly scored opening of Celebration.
Aside from its documentary value, this program affords much sheer musical enjoyment. This Beethoven Seventh is preferable to Stokowski's later version; and the Ben-Haim is, as far as I can tell, not otherwise available. Only the Bach transcription disappoints; fortunately, other, better Stokowski versions can be had from Classica d'Oro, EMI Classics, and even another from Cala itself. For the curious, Biddulph BID 83069/70, a two-disc album collecting a variety of Bach transcriptions, offers Respighi's orchestration of this same Passacaglia and Fugue, conducted by Toscanini.
Stephen Francis Vasta
This program affords much sheer musical enjoyment … see Full Review