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Nikolai Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra - Complete Recordings
rec. studio, Cleveland and New York City, 1924-28
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC524 [3 CDs: 183:20]

Nikolai Sokoloff (1885-1965) was born in Kiev and studied music at Yale. He is hardly a familiar name and tends to rank, in terms of catalogue coverage, below the likes of Cantelli, Schmidt-Isserstedt and Dorati. Nevertheless, he occupied a special place in the USA's musical history. There are so many examples of works he never commercially recorded, but he commissioned Ned Rorem's Second Symphony (1956) and conducted its premiere in La Jolla - the very place for which Martinů wrote his Sinfonietta of the same name. He died in La Jolla in 1965 having conducted Hovhaness's Symphony No 5 with the Seattle Youth orchestra in 1963. Active among West Coast orchestras, he had recorded works by Rózsa, Lopatnikoff, Dello Joio, Martinů and Britten. He was the uncle of the pianist Vladimir Sokoloff who was much in demand as accompanist to the Hollywood-ranked violist William Primrose. Vladimir premiered George Rochberg's Viola Sonata with Joseph De Pasquale.

The first two discs are, with the ironic exception of Schubert's Unfinished, an assemblage of pops, lollipops and extracts. That's inevitable given the 78 medium and the need to sell in quantity. There are two Tchaikovsky 1812s (1924 and 1926), a gaudy yet enduringly popular piece and one that illustrates how technology repeatedly re-set the public's idea of what was spectacular or even acceptable sound. The 1924 rendition emerges, in all its whipped aggression, through a busy and bristly surface burble. Sokoloff does not hang about in the two Strauss waltzes and a sense of rigid tempo enchains these pieces and prevents them singing freely. Much the same applies to Valse Triste, although it ends in gentle affection and without affectation. After a so-so Finlandia comes a tenderly done Traumerei, a soothing lollipop in the Beecham tradition.

Next come two dances: Slavonic fantasy follows and contrasts agreeably with a scimitar-fast Hungarian example. The Brahms connection continues with a movement plucked (who would do that now?) from the Second Symphony. The extreme speed of the second section is weirdly dizzy. Such a pity that Sokoloff did not record Brahms' Third and Fourth symphonies. CD 1 plays out with Wagner pops from Lohengrin. Tracks 12-14 repeat the acoustic chunks now heard in Light Ray Electric sound from just two years after the acoustic tracks. The impression of a large orchestra is rendered with more fidelity and hall-live acoustic. On the downside the sound feels overwrought in the Act III Prelude. Things take on a gracious bloom in the Bridal March. Disc 1 ends as it began: with Tchaikovsky's 1812; just as incisively done as it was in 1924. The cannons boom and the bells clang in the last pages; no cannons in 1924 or at least I couldn't make them out. Those massed strings in whirlwind form in 1926 suggest Sokoloff would have given us a Francesca da Rimini to be reckoned with and to vie with Stokowski.

CD 2 continues with those electric process sides. The Sleeping Beauty waltz is plush and headily fast - Sokoloff's accelerator could have benefited from some restraint. Its quicksilver transitions mix plush with flickering rapidity. Next, Sokoloff turns to sultry climes in Rimsky-Korsakov as arranged by none other than Victor Herbert. Their work has been lavished on what turns out to be a leisurely yet uncloying Song of India from Sadko. There's more than a touch of Hollywood in Sokoloff's way with this music. The Rachmaninov Prelude wells up from brooding depths. Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture is, like many of the tracks in Pristine's recent Dan Godfrey disc, a gleaming example of what became almost a 78 cliché before the 1960s and the LP: the overture-showcase, all over and done with, usually after some 'work', in between four and eight minutes. Neeme Järvi gave the genre new wings over the last decade with various Chandos collections. A ruminative Danse Macabre with a deliciously skeletal and febrile violin solo precedes Halvorsen's bubbling march with its gawky stride which has latterly drawn back conductors like Berglund and Järvi. Sokoloff's Schubert Unfinished was taken down in May 1928 in New York City. I find Sokoloff's speed and gritted teeth off-putting. It's all a shade too quick and breathless although amends are made in the pleasingly measured plod of the Andante. The Delibes Coppélia extracts go swimmingly, while Sokoloff, a pupil of Loeffler and D'Indy, seems, despite a scratchily strutting trumpet, to relish the Entrance of The Little Fauns from Pierné's Cydalise et le Chèvre-Pied. The disc is rounded out with Grainger's irredeemably jolly and eccentric Shepherd’s Hey.
Turning to the last disc, I was delighted to encounter three substantial works recorded in 1928. Before the world première recording of the Rachmaninov we have the Sibelius Valse Triste which seems very fast now - think quick-Golovanov - but the tempo is slowed most touchingly as the work closes. The Borodin works well until towards the end when an unaccountably stiff and stilted rigidity takes hold. Students of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony need to hear this Sokoloff. Quite apart from being its first outing on disc - must have been quite a few 78s - this is a reading that has invigorating merits. It's a work that thrives on deep lush-plush sound but despite the inevitable absence of that quality there are many delights here. Before touching on a few of these I will mention a number of readings that enrich listening to a work that has now become tired through over-exposure. Rozhdestvensky and the LSO should never be forgotten; likewise Svetlanov from the 1960s and the super-heated Golovanov from a decade earlier. Ormandy on CBS remains a perennially good choice but four other readings from slightly more modern times are well worth tracking down: Jose Cura, full of character on Avie, Sanderling and the Philharmonia broad and expansive on Warner, Otaka - much under-rated yet especially intense on Nimbus and the vigorous and passionate De Preist and the Oregon orchestra on Delos. Sokoloff's Rachmaninov Second is not presented complete but the impact of the work is no less telling. In the first movement the yearningly-paced gloom (9:14) is very effective although the shifting sands of the final pages are eccentrically slurred. There's an exaggerated rallentando at the end of the first movement. I have not heard it phrased in this way before. It works well. In the second movement the music's red-blooded emphasis is well caught (4:50). As for the big Adagio, it is completely engaging and engulfing - a case strongly made for hearing this version. The finale - an alloy of weigh and dynamism is sabre-fast. The Cleveland orchestra proves a more attractively yielding instrument than it was on occasion to become in the unyielding hands of George Szell.

Thanks for these discs, which have been most thoroughly documented, as has always been the way with Pristine, are due to producer and audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn. Source material has come from Nathan Brown, Jim Cartwright’s Immortal Performances, Inc., Frederick P. Fellers, Michael Gartz, the collection of the late Bob Hunter, Richard Kaplan and Charles Niss. Naturally, we are talking 78s and mono from the 1920s so expectations must be trimmed accordingly. Each appears to have been caringly transferred with well-founded decisions made that discreetly balance attention to bristly rustling surface noise to preserve the vigour of the intrinsic sound.

Rob Barnett
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Detailed Track-List for CDs 1 and 2

CD 1 [60:58]
The Acoustic Recordings (1924)
1. TCHAIKOVSKY 1812 Overture, Op. 44 [8:49]
recorded 23 January 1924, New York City
First issued: Brunswick 50047
2. J. STRAUSS II On the Beautiful Blue Danube - Waltz, Op. 314 [4:09]
rec. 2 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50052
3. J. STRAUSS II Tales from the Vienna Woods - Waltz, Op. 325 [4:25]
rec. 3 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50052
4. SIBELIUS Valse Triste - from Kuolema, Op. 44 [2:45]
rec. 5 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15092
5. SIBELIUS Finlandia - Symphonic Poem, Op 26 [4:20]
rec. 2 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50053
6. SCHUMANN Träumerei (Kinderszenen, Op. 15, No. 7) [3:33]
rec. 5 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15091
7. DVOŘÁK Slavonic Dance in D major, Op. 46, No. 3 [3:15]
rec. 4 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15091
8. BRAHMS Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor [2:35]
rec. 5 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15092
9. BRAHMS Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 73 - 3rd Mvt. - Allegretto [4:19]
rec. 4 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50053
10. WAGNER Lohengrin - Prelude to Act 3 [3:07]
rec. 5 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15090
11. WAGNER Lohengrin - Bridal Chorus (Act 3) [3:15]
rec. 5 October 1924, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15090

The “Light-Ray” Electrics (1926)
12. WAGNER Lohengrin - Prelude to Act 3 [3:11]
rec. 1 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15121 (matrix E 19234)
13. WAGNER Lohengrin - Bridal Chorus (Act 3) [3:18]
rec. 1 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15121 (matrix E 19237)
14. TCHAIKOVSKY 1812 Overture, Op. 44 [9:58]
rec. 1 and 3 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50090 (matrices XE 19243 & 19131)

CD 2 [58:09]
The “Light-Ray” Electrics (1926) - continued
1. TCHAIKOVSKY The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 20, No. 6 - Waltz [4:09]
rec. 3 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15120 (matrix E 19134)
2. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (arr. Victor Herbert) Sadko - Song of India [3:13]
rec. 1 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15120 (matrix E 19238)
3. RACHMANINOV Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 [3:54]
rec. 3 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 15189 (matrix E 19147)
4. NICOLAI The Merry Wives of Windsor - Overture [4:25]
rec. 3 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50089 (matrix XE 19138)
5. SAINT-SAËNS Danse Macabre, Op. 40 [4:44]
rec. 3 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50089 (matrix XE 19135)
6. HALVORSEN Entry March of the Boyars [5:31]
rec. 3 May 1926, Cleveland
First issued: Brunswick 50149 (matrix XE 19145)

The Final Electrics (1928)
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’
7. 1st Mvt.: Allegro moderato [12:29]
8. 2nd Mvt.: Andante con moto [12:05]
rec. on 8/9 May 1928 in New York City
First issued: Brunswick 50150/2 [matrices XE 27505/9 & 27520)
9. DELIBES Coppelia - Entr’acte and Valse [3:14]
rec. on 7 May 1928 in New York City
First issued: Brunswick 15189 (matrix E 27482)
10. PIERNÉ Cydalise et le Chèvre-Pied - Entrance of the Little Fauns [2:08]
rec. 9 May 1928 in New York City
First issued: Brunswick 15181 (matrix E 27527)
11. GRAINGER Shepherd’s Hey (A Morris Dance) [2:15]
rec. 9 May 1928 in New York City
First issued: Brunswick 15181 (matrix E 27522)

CD 3 [64:13]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Valse Triste (from Kuolema, Op. 44) [3:42]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887) Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor, Act 2) [11:19]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 [46:16]
Cleveland Orchestra/Nikolai Sokoloff



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