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Pristine Classical
PASC500 ~ PASC540 ~ PASC562

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Stokowski: The Philadelphia Brahms Symphony Cycle
The three discs are available separately and also as a single download as PABX025
rec. 1926-1933
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC500/540/562 [3 CDs: 228:29]

George Peele wrote: “His golden locks Time hath to silver turned.” So it is with these Victor studio recordings over which presided Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977); silver indeed. Given their vintage and inevitably mono signal they still have the capacity to impress. The work of the then Victor team still gives a very nice suggestion of quiet quiets and loud louds without prejudicing audibility or dicing with distortion. For this credit redounds to Pristine and producer and audio restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn. There are hissy surfaces to contend with, although typically the listener’s awareness of this soon slips away as the music exercises its sway. A mark of the waywardness of fashion are the extravagant portamenti which are in full and unblushing evidence throughout.

Stokowski, who headed up the Philadelphia from 1912 to 1940, did not favour all four of the Brahms symphonies equally over his very long career. Of them the First was a particular career-long favourite. This early version exemplifies the conductor’s elite “cathedral of sound” effect with the music surging across the heavens. Mr Obert-Thorn tells us that the original symphony sides “were plagued with pitch and volume fluctuations, which I have endeavored to correct here”. The results are good - in fact wonderful. The second movement of No. 1 delivers a remarkable silvery and frictionless romantic haze: as just one example, try 6:33 (I) as French horn, strings and solo violin intertwine. The first movement marches relentlessly forward like a great mechanical leviathan with the suggestion of components at once liquid, lush and cyber-punk. This exhilaration is also on display in the finale; for example, from 14:15 to the end. This first Brahms disc finishes with four flavourful gulps of what is, by comparison, small beer. The Weber Invitation to the Dance is in the Berlioz orchestration reportedly with some small and gentle Stokowskian “enhancements”. The two Strauss waltzes effervesce and happen to have been the first recordings Victor made in the Academy of Music. Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody brings things to a close. Interestingly Stokowski’s spoken analysis of Brahms 1 includes a nice piece of ‘push’ for Victrola.

His Brahms Third is at first taken at a cracking pace. When in this mode Stokowski does not allow the listener the luxury of time to dwell on the scenery or take in the flowers’ aroma. That said, he soon settles on a generously-paced amble but it’s still an amble rather than a leisurely wander. Things are kept on a straining leash. The second movement seems aimed to create a “harmoniemusik” effect with woodwind often emphasised. This is not always at the expense of strings. These stream with moonlight and admit slaloming portamenti - magically done. It is easy to forget the historic sound as the music slews and swoons. In the next movement the French horn is beautifully shaped and paid out; try 3:32. The finale is at first measured and the “lightning strike” is more amply dimensioned than the one forged by Bruno Walter in his classic CBS stereo version; Walter’s 1934-40 cycle on Pristine has been reviewed here before. At 5:13 the orchestra’s pulsing and muscular unity pays adrenaline-pumping dividends. At 6:40 the ‘action’ boils over with the Philadelphia dangerously and excitingly close to chaos and the players right at the edge of their virtuosity.

PASC562 mounts symphonies two and four together. The Second (my least favourite of the four) has no hint of Apollonian hurly-burly. The overall effect is nectar-smooth. It impressed me more than I had expected. By contrast, I found this version of Stokowski in Brahms 4 to be unyielding and rigid. This is strange as this is a work that I am well disposed to. This ended up as the trigger for my conclusion that this makes for a mixed bag of a Brahms cycle.

The Dvořák Ninth Symphony is again introduced by the conductor. He had a life-long predilection for educating his audiences. This was done in a way that communicates rather than mystifies. He refers, in his recorded and theme-illustrated spoken introduction, to the ‘New World’ as a Symphony of America. He then proceeds very credibly to make his case with themes he associates with American Indians, the country’s Negro peoples and the far West - very different times indeed. Associate conductor Artur Rodzinski is the pianist. The performance has an urgency bordering on paranoiac fury. This contrasts with the Largo which has a dreamily shaped cor anglais melody. The third movement feels eccentric with an effect resembling nothing so much as a Singer sewing-machine gone berserk. The finale is a hell-for-leather hay-wagon ride. The recording wears its 1927 time-frame uncomfortably with crepe-paper historic sound. The Dvořák was taken from vinyl test pressings.

Restricting myself to two New Classics Brahms sets that I know from previous reviews, this one stands closer to the more recent Dorati who takes things at a Beau sabreur charge rather than Giulini’s Vienna Phil cycle where the conductor (in 1992) favoured a slow philosopher’s stone approach.
Rob Barnett

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf – PASC500 ~ PASC540

PASC500 [70:01]
1. Outline of Themes from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 [3:55]
rec. 30 April 1927, Victor Studios, Camden, New Jersey
First issued on Victor 6657
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [40:48]
rec. 25 – 27 April 1927, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Victor 6658 through 6662 in album M-15
6. WEBER (orch. Berlioz/Stokowski) Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 [8:26]
rec. 2 May 1927, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
7. J. STRAUSS II On the Beautiful Blue Danube – Waltz, Op. 314 [4:20]
rec. 10 June 1926, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Victor 6584
8. J. STRAUSS II Tales from the Vienna Woods – Waltz, Op. 325 [4:33]
rec. 10 June 1926, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Victor 6584
9. LISZT (orch. Müller-Berghaus): Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 [7:59]
rec. 18 November 1926 and 10 March 1927, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Victor 6652

PASC562 [79:54]
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [41:22]
rec. 29-30 April 1929, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Victor 7277/82 in album M-82
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 [38:32]
rec. 4 March and 29 April 1933, Church Studio No. 1, Camden
First issued on Victor 7825/9 in album M-185
BRAHMS Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
9. Alternate Take of Side Six (Part 2 of Second Movement)
included on downloads for this release but not on the CD
rec. 15 March 1930
First issued on Victor 7279 (quickly withdrawn due to missing bars at the beginning)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Studio recordings, 1929 and 1933

PASC540 [78:34]
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [35:30]
rec. 25/26 September 1928 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Victor 6962 through 6966 in album M-42
5. Outline of Themes from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 [4:03]
Leopold Stokowski (speaker)
Artur Rodzinski (pianist)
rec. 6 October 1927, Victor Studios, Camden, New Jersey
First issued as Victor 6743 in album M-1
DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’ [38:57]
rec. 5 and 8 October 1927, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued as Victor 6565 through 6569 in album M-1
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski

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