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Stokowski Acoustic - Volume 2
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-94) [9:47]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.8 in B minor Unfinished D759 (1822) [22:52]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi Overture (1842) [8:21]
Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries [4:37]; Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music (1850) [3:55]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act 1 (1850) [7:43]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 Pathétique – Movement No.3; March (heavily cut) (1893) [4:02]
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 – 2nd movement (1888) [13:33]
The Nutcracker: Dance of the Flutes, Op.71a (1892) [2:03]
Song without Words, Op.40 No.6 arr. Stokowski [2:08]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. 1919-24, Camden Church Studio, Camden, NJ

The second volume in this series devoted to Stokowski’s acoustic recordings covers the years 1919 to 1924 (see review of Vol. 1). There is some major uncut literature here, not least the first two pieces which will, I think, draw the most interest. The April 1924 recording of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is notable for the contributions of two members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in particular. The first is flautist William Kincaid, whose very oscillatory sound takes a great deal of getting used to, and oboist Marcel Tabuteau whose excellence is a given. Stokowski had recorded the work back in 1917 but that remained unissued so this very late acoustic was his first successful recording of it. The engineers ensured that the harp was nicely balanced and one can savour the small string section and their succulent portamento.

The Unfinished symphony receives a straightforward and unmannered reading. It was recorded ten days before the Debussy. The results are somewhat stygian because bass reinforcements were employed, as was customary at the time, and only 39 musicians were crammed into the Camden Church Studio. The upper strings contrast well with the lower in the slow movement but the lower are hamstrung by the tuba bass so that the music emerges heavier than intended. Still, this is a rewarding souvenir of Stokowski’s accommodation between idealisation and sonic reality.

The rest of the music is split between Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Stokowski liked the Rienzi overture. This fine-sounding 1919 recording occupied two 78 sides and introduces the orchestra’s heavily vibrating trumpet principal. One can hear how closely the winds are positioned to the acoustic horn in the Walküre extracts and the brass comes across well. In fact the Lohengrin Prelude reveals how quiet music could register, if engineers positioned things optimally and the reduced band projected sensitively. With an excellent transfer, such as this, detail is always audible. The March movement from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is ruthlessly cut to a single side. It took 11 takes to get this down satisfactorily whereas the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony – perhaps because it’s uncut and was therefore part of the orchestra’s regular repertoire - caused no such problems. Despite the addition of tuba and bass clarinet the 34 musicians – down in number on the body that had recorded a few years earlier – do well. The envoi to this disc is A Stokowski fireside weepy arrangement of the Song without Words – a sort of Lilian Gish in music.

There’s much to admire here if you want to collect Stokowski’s series of acoustic discs.

Jonathan Woolf



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