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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Die Walküre (1850): Wotan’s Farewell [12:19]; Magic Fire Music [4:41] Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka No.4 in A minor, Op.17 (transcr. Stokowski) [5:14]
Prelude No.24 in D minor, Op.28 (transcr. Stokowski) [2:25]
Waltz No.2 in C sharp minor, Op.64 (transcr. Stokowski) [3:12] Thomas CANNING (1911-1989)
Fantasy on a Hymn Tune by Justin Morgan (1944) [11:01]
Houston Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. March 1960, Houston EVEREST SDBR 3070 [39:17]
There are a few salient things you should know about this disc, and I speak as a long-time member of the now disbanded society dedicated to the conductor. Firstly, he made a number of other recordings of Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music. Second, his transcriptions and the performances of the three Chopin pieces are amongst the most woeful things he ever committed to record. Third, this disc - despite its supersonic Everest sound - lasts a mere 39 minutes. Why on earth should you even consider it?
That’s the case for the prosecution, which would go on to point out that the 1960 Houston sessions did produce two good, though hardly stellar Walküre extracts. The balances are good and the splendid recording allows the listener to appreciate how the conductor moulded the string section into some semblance of the Stokowski Sound in pursuance of his idealised sonority. The brass and percussion make a considerable impression too. However, what a disastrous eleven minutes of Chopin; a Mazurka, a Prelude and a Waltz too terrible in arrangement and execution even to be labelled ‘café band’. The orchestra was under instructions, no doubt. In Oliver Daniel’s extensive biography Stokowski himself has been quoted as saying – you won’t find it in the booklet notes, obviously, which reproduce the original liner notes – that the Chopin performance should not be offered to the public ‘in its present form’ - the comment applied to all three. If you do want to hear these rather simpering arrangements he had already recorded the Mazurka and the Prelude with the Philadelphia in 1937, and was to return to the latter with his Symphony orchestra (1950) and the National Philharmonic in 1976.
The case for the defence? It depends whether you have ever heard the recording of Thomas Canning’s Fantasy on a Hymn Tune by John Morgan, composed in 1944. The American-born Canning (1911-89) was clearly a disciple of Vaughan Williams. Whilst the Fantasy lacks VW’s coherence and rapturous quality, it must have appealed to Stokowski for its rich lyricism and moving intensity. He was a great VW conductor. Commentators have rightly pointed to the Tallis Fantasia similarities – they’re unavoidable – not least because Canning writes for double string quartet and string orchestra in emulation. He’d also clearly heard the Variants on Dives and Lazarus, which was written a few years before Canning’s own piece. There are also distinct echoes of The Lark Ascending. So if you are interested in a mélange of VW influences, you will enjoy this piece. For all that these allusions may seem, critically speaking, to diminish it, Canning’s is a moving and often beautiful piece in its own right.
One footnote to the above: when the Canning was pirated from Everest and put out on LP it was credited to ‘Sir Malcolm Sutherland and the London Stadium Orchestra’.
This, then, is the mixed case for the prosecution and defence. Splendid sound, good performances such as are allowed by the music - that is, except the Chopin trio - repetitive repertoire – largely the Wagner. One eleven-minute novelty, the Canning. Awful playing time. Your call.