Stokowski: The Blue Danube Waltz and music for strings
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
On the beautiful blue Danube (1866) [9:14]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Nocturne from string quartet no.2 in D major (1881) (arr. Sargent) [8:47]
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Moto Perpetuo (1835) (arr. Lavagnino) [3:48]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Vocalise (1912) (arr. Dubensky) [7:24]
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Tamburino from Alcina (1735) (arr. Whittaker) [1:18]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Hornpipe from King Arthur (1691) (arr. Herbage) [0:50]
Christoph von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Lento from Iphigenie in Aulis (1774) (arr. Stokowski) [3:11]
Musette from Armide (1777) (arr. Stokowski) [1:51]
Sicilienne from Armide (1777) (arr. Stokowski) [3:02]
Dance of the blessed spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) (arr. Stokowski) [8:09]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
Minuet from string quintet in E major, op.13 no.5 (1771) (arr. Stokowski) [2:27]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Andante cantabile from string quartet no.1 in D major (1871) (arr. Stokowski) [8:05]
Theodor BERGER (1905-1992)
Rondino giocoso (1933) [4:22]
His Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. venue not specified, 1957-1958
GUILD GHCD2392 [63:23]
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.
True and compelling revelations.