Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)

CD 1
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection [79:59]
Rae Woodland (soprano); Janet Baker (contralto)
BBC Chorus and BBC Choral Society
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. 30 July 1963, Royal Albert Hall. Mono
Originally released as BBCL4136-2

CD 2
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937) [40:51]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-5) [30:15]
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 (8) 17 (5) September 1964.
Originally released as BBCL41652

CD 3
Otto KLEMPERER (1885-1973)
Merry Waltz from the opera Das Ziel (1915) [3:02]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [17:02]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (1908) [16:02]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [37:36]
Ottokar NOVÁčEK (1866-1900)
Perpetuum mobile Op.5 No.4 transcribed Leopold Stokowski (1940) [3:55] ¹
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski ¹
rec. Royal Albert Hall, 14 May 1974; 21 September 1974 (Nováček)
Originally released as BBCL42052

ADD stereo/mono
[3 CDs: 79:59 + 71:40 + 78:24]

This 3 CD box set comprises discs all previously released and reviewed separately here on MusicWeb International. I refer you to those excellent reviews by colleagues Marc Bridle, Ian Lace and Jonathan Woolf respectively for more detail, especially as I heartily endorse their enthusiastic judgements. All three discs have benefited from 20 bit digital re-mastering which has removed any fuzziness and clarified detail without creating edginess. There is a sense of the vast space which is the Albert Hall; reverberance without too much reverberation.

This new bargain compilation offers a very affordable and wonderfully disparate programme performed by a conductor whose instinct for making theatrical impact was tempered by an instinctive empathy for the idiom each piece requires. He thus provides some of the most vibrant and exciting music-making to be found on disc.

But first, two caveats: the Resurrection Symphony is mono and the Proms audience for this performance appears to include refugees from a local TB ward; the worst of their wholly unguarded, phlegmy hacking is nearly always judiciously timed to erupt in the quietest most reflective passages. Although the re-mastered mono sound for the Mahler is really very good, it is not really possible, as some commentators have optimistically suggested, to mistake it for early stereo but it mostly remains spacious enough to do the music justice.

Having got those drawbacks out of the way, I am left with nothing to do but go into rapture over this collection. It provides a showcase for Stokowski’s still under-rated mastery and the perfect introduction to his art, ranging across a hundred years of music and four great traditions: Austro-German, Russian, French and English. All are live recordings positively crackling with creative energy and there isn’t a less than arresting performance among them. Some might lament the absence here of any of his trademark Bach transcriptions; personally I can do without them and am delighted by the anthology as it stands.

Already in his early eighties at the time of the 1963 Mahler performance and into his nineties in the 1974 Proms programme, Stokie’s only concession to age was to press even harder seemingly to prove that there was no way he was slowing down. The ferocity with which he attacks that opening stringendo figure in the Allegro maestoso of the Mahler symphony is startling. The pacing of the second and third movements is just perfect; no lingering but plenty of cunning shaping of phrases with recourse to generous and fluid rubato which never sounds applied or self-conscious. The last movement, especially when the trumpets blare tipsily, is just occasionally more suggestive of the circus than post-Apocalyptic events but the grandeur of the climactic resurrection theme intoned by brass and chorus is inevitability overwhelming. The addition of a a crescendo for the tam-tam is a typical Stokie indulgence but forgivable. Some have patronisingly detected “promise” in the young Janet Baker’s “Urlicht”; to me she is already a fully-formed and deeply moving artist of extraordinary vocal richness and nuance. Soprano Rae Woodland – a late replacement for Elizabeth Harwood - is touching and more than adequate. There is the occasional blurt and blip from the woodwind, such as a squawk from the oboe’s early in the first movement but in general the confidence and virtuosity of the LSO are phenomenal.

The sustained, stabbing intensity of the opening of his Shostakovich, tempered by gorgeous string tone, works in stark contrast to, for example, the bleaker melancholy of Previn’s Fifth. Previn is all icy chills, Stokowski’s Fifth all burning agony. The swagger of the Allegretto pizzicato invites a parallel with his delivery of the Scherzo in the Mahler; no-one does a demonic dance better than Stokowski. The Largo yearns and swoons, achieving a tragic status; the finale is triumphant and leonine. Stokowski claimed a special affinity with Slavic music; Shostakovich acknowledged and honoured him for it. I certainly know of no finer performance of this favourite symphony than this one.

The second disc features two composers with whom Stokowski was personally acquainted and indeed friendly; the pictures in the liner notes show him applauding Shostakovich and working on a score with Vaughan Williams – possibly the symphony here. The Eighth is arguably the most dreamily lyrical, colouristically adventurous and essentially English of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies. There is a certain charm in hearing an 82 year-old conductor conduct an 84 year-old composer’s music with such affection and indulgence. Some find the Fantasia and Cavatina too languorous but it seems to me that Stokowski captures their ethereal stillness, his careful moulding and firmness of line compensating for the diffuseness of the melody. The Scherzo is zestful, the Toccata exuberant. Vaughan Williams’ prominent use of an expanded percussion section is a gift to an exhibitionist like Stokowski. He gives us a portrait of an Elgarian London: all rumbustious urban bustle and tolling bells.

The third disc is mostly the tribute concert for Otto Klemperer who had died ten months previously, beginning and ending with bon-bons: the echt-Viennese Merry Waltz from Klemperer’s opera Das Ziel and a taut 1964 recording of Stokowski’s transcription of the Perpetuum mobile by Ottokar Nováček which displays the virtuosity of the LSO’s shimmering strings.

Its centrepiece is the red-hot performance of the Brahms 4, by no means a Stokie staple but played here with sweep and virility. He doesn’t do restrained, “sensitive” Brahms. This is more in the line of the phallocentric heroism favoured by his rival, Toscanini although less hard-driven and the Andante is meltingly tender. Phrasing can be almost wilful in its ebb and flow but it’s wonderfully pliant. This account has Stokowski’s love of the music plastered all over it none too subtly – and I love it. Clearly the audience do, too, as they break into unprecedented applause after the first movement.

The performance of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is simply gorgeous, the strings soaring ecstatically. The occasional cougher strikes tellingly as if impervious to the sonorous glories around him/her but in general an air of rapt stillness attends.

Stokowski’s Ravel is more voluptuous than the usual Gallic delicacy; the music exhales an exotic, erotic perfumed breath – when the coughers give it a chance.

Ralph Moore

Sweep and virility … simply gorgeous …the music exhales an exotic, erotic perfumed breath.