Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No.7 in A major, Op. 92: [36:18]
Outline of Themes [4:22] Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, Unfinished [22:33] Moment Musicale No. 3 in F minor, D780 (orch. Stokowski) [2:09] Rosamunde, D797, Ballet Music No. 2: Issued version [3:41]; Unissued longer version [4:40]
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, April–October 1927 PRISTINE AUDIO PASC483 [73:43]
In the first track of this recording, the conductor speaks about the Beethoven symphony and illustrates his talk by playing extracts on a piano. While this outline may be regarded as superfluous by a large majority of potential listeners, even the best-known music will be new to some and they will find the introduction helpful.
The Philadelphia Orchestra in its hey-day plays this programme of Viennese classics with a precision, brilliance of attack and tonal substance that are remarkable, even by today’s standards.
To simplify somewhat, there seem to be two possible approaches to performing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. One is the classical method marked by swift tempos, steadily maintained and best exemplified in performances by Arturo Toscanini and those who followed his example. The other approach is the romantic one using broader and more flexible tempos and favoured by many of the great German conductors. Propulsion and rhythmic verve versus expressive power.
Interestingly, this early electrical Stokowski performance seems to have a foot in both camps, suggesting that some performances may exist on a continuum between the apparent polar opposites. This can best be illustrated by comparing this performance with Toscanini’s 1936 reading with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, regarded by many (then as now) as the greatest recording of the work made in the 78rpm era. (Pristine Audio has a restoration of the latter in its catalogue, but my CD is a Grammophono 2000 release.)
The timings of the two performances tell us much:
In the outer movements, Stokowski is marginally swifter than Toscanini, but in the Third movement the reverse is the case and in the Allegretto Stokowski is almost two minutes slower than his Italian colleague. These comparisons confirm one’s subjective impression that Stokowski is ‘classical’ in the outer movements and ‘romantic’ in the inner movements.
In the first movement, it is notable that the Toscanini of the nineteen-thirties, no less than Stokowski, finds lyricism in the slow introduction. In the Vivace, Stokowski is propulsive and draws vital playing, but does not equal Toscanini’s astonishing intensity, for example the great double-hammer blows are not as sharply delineated. This may be partly a matter of recording: Toscanini had the advantage of almost a decade’s further development of recording technology, even if his recording has always been regarded as badly engineered. As restored by Grammophono 2000, it sounds closer than Stokowski’s yet has a wider dynamic range and considerable clarity. One particularly notices the welcome prominence of the lower strings. But the violins are shrill and harsh. Grammophono’s transfer has virtually eliminated background noise and distortion, but has not brought warmth (perhaps Pristine’s restoration has). Stokowski’s sound, although not wide ranging or ideally clear by more recent standards, has warmth and substance and falls more pleasantly upon the ear.
Stokowski’s Allegretto is, in relative terms, romantically slow but retains a firm pulse and is never diffuse, never a wallow. The approach caters to the strengths of the strings, displaying their incomparable beauty and depth of tone. For his part Toscanini, with his faster beat, never sounds impatient or terse. Both conductors pay close attention to dynamic contrasts, as when the main theme is first played by the violas and cellos and then played by the second violins while the violas and cellos play a second melody.
In the Third movement, Toscanini maintains a steady pace when he gets to the two statements of the Trio; Stokowski relaxes for expressive effect without doing any great harm to the structure. Some may find this an unacceptable liberty; I enjoy it while also appreciating Toscanini’s sterner approach in equal measure.
In the final movement, both conductors adopt what seems to have become the standard method in recordings over the decades: the use of a very swift tempo and the omission of the exposition repeat. In other reviews, I’ve questioned (in particular) the omission of this repeat, so won’t re-state my argument. At least with 78rpm recordings, the omission can be justified by the fact that its inclusion might have spread the movement onto a third side. Both the orchestras have the virtuosity to maintain an impressive level of intensity at these fast speeds and both performances come to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps more could have been heard from the Philadelphia horns and trumpets at the end of the movement, and more from the tympani throughout, but these slight deficiencies (which are likely due to the recording balance) do not significantly detract from the performance. So, while Toscanini in 1936 hasn’t yielded the crown, Stokowski’s is still a great performance.
To help me in assessing Stokowski’s performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, I listened to a 1947 recording with the Philadelphians conducted, this time, by Bruno Walter (as restored in Pristine’s two-disc set ‘Bruno Walter Rarities’ - review). The movements in both performances time to within a few seconds of each other and both readings could be called ‘unexaggeratedly romantic’. Given that many of the musicians must have played in both recordings and that both conductors could be flexible but seldom indulgent in their phrasing, it’s not surprising that the performances are similar. But what is remarkable is the sound quality of Stokowski’s recording. In comparison with Walter’s recording, the orchestra is placed slightly further back (but not too far) and the dynamic range is not as wide. But in almost every other way the engineering for Stokowski is to be preferred to Walter’s engineering of twenty years later. Mark Obert Thorn was Pristine’s producer and restoration engineer for both these releases. His transfer of the 1927 recording brings string tone of remarkable warmth, weight and refinement. The first movement’s opening melody starts with powerful, resonant celli and basses. When the second subject’s famous lyrical theme (first stated by the celli) is taken up by the violins, that choir has impressive weight and sheen. The recording handles the dramatic interruption of the theme by the tutti sforzandi with relatively little diminution in quality.
Walter’s recording, too, has powerful, impressive lower strings and I think he handles the transition from the first theme to the second subject a shade more sensitively than Stokowski. But the listener soon finds the reproduction of the upper strings when playing above mezzo forte is harsh, not to say shrill. The persistence of this – almost certainly a characteristic of the original US Columbia recording – compromises the natural warmth of the music, the conductor and the orchestra.
In the two movements, both conductors convey Schubertian lyricism without distortion or sentimentality and, where appropriate, stark drama. It’s almost superfluous to add that the orchestra responds magnificently to these podium giants. In Stokowski’s recording of the Andante con moto Second Movement, I was struck by the aptness of the balance between woodwinds and the strings, particularly in the coda. An achievement, surely, of conductor and engineers alike.
So, two great performances of the Unfinished, but the advantage is with Stokowski because his sound is much more refined. For collectors in the late nineteen-twenties accustomed to the constricted orchestral sound of the old acoustic technology, his recording must have been revelatory in terms of performance and engineering alike. Today’s collectors will find genuine enjoyment, also.
The shorter pieces which conclude the disc are all satisfyingly performed and restored. Moment Musicale No. 3 finds the great conductor in one of his favourite roles as an “arranger” of somebody else’s music – in this case, music originally written for piano. Whether one approves or disapproves is a personal matter. The two performances of the much-loved excerpt from the Rosamunde Ballet Music are delivered in fine style. The first, shorter, version was recorded on a ten-inch disc and released for public sale. The other version (longer, because it contained more repeats) was recorded on a twelve-inch disc and not released at that time.
This release contains masterly, vintage performances newly restored to levels of fidelity which range from excellent to remarkable. Warmly recommended.