It would be very easy to underestimate this disc. After all,
a quick glance at its tracks suggests that they could justifiably
be categorised as musical “lollipops”: charming,
easy on the ear and, to be honest, not too taxing for the brain.
In fact, this is a rather more significant disc than that, as
you will discover if you listen to it with the degree of respect
and care that the conductor himself has clearly given the scores.
The opening Blue Danube waltz - a Stokowski favourite
in the recording studio - receives a most enjoyable and characterful
performance. It’s full of vim and driven along rather
more vigorously than usual: a powerful, substantial account
that would surely have left all but the most energetic Viennese
dancers quite puffed. Booklet notes writer Robert Matthew-Walker's
claim that the conductor's strict observance of all the repeats
“raises it to the level of a short tone-poem, removed
from the ballroom into the concert hall” may, though,
strike some as a little fanciful.
The string orchestra performances that complete the disc are,
in the main, pretty familiar fare. Only the piece by Berger
is likely to draw a blank with many potential buyers, though
it will prove perfectly enjoyable - if, in all probability,
quickly forgotten - by anyone who enjoys Prokofiev. Familiar
though most of this music may be, however, Stokowski is determined
to make us hear the scores afresh.
If you give the matter even the most cursory thought, you will
easily perceive that the absence of woodwinds and brass poses
a potential problem for any conductor putting together a concert
(or disc) programme. To maintain a non-specialist audience’s
interest and attention, he or she will be conscious of the advantage
of injecting some colour and variety into the relatively homogenous
string sound. That is where Stokowski - who, as an expert organist
in his early life would surely have faced similar problems -
shows off his consummate skill in two separate ways.
Firstly, as arranger of no fewer than six of the twelve strings-only
tracks here, he exhibits the finest degree of discernment in
creating an attractive working balance between violins, violas,
cellos and double-basses that gives air and clarity to the scores.
Secondly, as conductor he displays the greatest skill in the
judicious application of rubato and, even more, in carefully
controlling the dynamics within each individual piece so as
to bestow a distinctive personality to each.
Stokowski was an inveterate showman. He revelled in celebrity,
enjoyed a career as an occasional, if lesser, star in the Hollywood
firmament and featured regularly in media ranging from feature
films and newsreels to gossip columns - an on-off romance with
Greta Garbo certainly helped. As such, his distinctive - and
distinctively marketed - style of conducting was probably more
widely seen by the general public than that of any other
conductor of the Golden Age. Thanks to occasional TV re-runs,
his podium style is still familiar. Thus, it is easy, while
listening to these tracks, to imagine him using those supremely
expressive baton-less hands - see here
for a particularly enjoyable example - to coax such thoughtful,
finely drawn and highly effective performances from the orchestra.
The content of this disc may not have, in itself, a great deal
of musical significance. Many of you reading this review may
well think that you’ve moved on past Boccherini’s
once ubiquitous Minuet in your musical development. But,
as vehicles to demonstrate the qualities of a master of expressive
conducting bringing new perspectives to scores which we thought
we already knew inside out, it and its companion tracks prove
true and compelling revelations.