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Stokowski Conducts French Music
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La cathédrale engloutie (1910) [7:51]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1891-1894) [12:23]
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911) [12:25]
La soirée dans Grenade (1903) [7:58]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 210 (1940) [21:24]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2 (1912) [18:53]
NBC Symphony Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski
rec. 1943/1944, live radio broadcasts, Carnegie Hall, New York.

My first encounter with Leopold Stokowski was, like many, through the spectacular Walt Disney film “Fantasia” (1940). Despite his Middle European persona he was born in Marylebone, London and seemed like a magician. Over the past 30 years, I have enjoyed listening to some of his vast recorded legacy; even so there are quite a few recordings that haven’t surfaced yet. In 1941, Toscanini had a dispute with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and one result was that he went to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Stokowski came to New York. These radio broadcasts are selected from his time in New York. They have all the sparkle, magic and dreamlike qualities that Stokowski generated right up to his death in 1977, aged 95.

In the brief but adequate notes, Edward Johnson mentions that when Stokowski visited London in 1957 to make one of his annual appearances in the capital, he was invited onto “Desert Island Discs”. The BBC's long-running radio programme features well-known persons who are asked to choose eight recordings to take with them, should they be marooned on a desert island. The programme was for many years presented by Roy Plomley*. Among Stokowski's choices was "Sirènes" from Debussy’s Three Nocturnes. "I am a great lover of Debussy," he told Plumley, "and when I was a student in Paris a long time ago I heard him play the piano and I also heard him conduct. I think he was a great genius." This is what I find so fascinating about “old recordings” which are produced by Pristine Audio, and a few select others. The recordings, from over three quarters of a century ago, enable the listener to hear musicians who met the composers and this usually gives the performances an authentic quality; it certainly does here.

*You can hear many Desert Island Disc programmes here

These tracks are taken from several radio concerts and have been restored, very satisfactorily, by Pristine’s Andrew Rose. The Stokowski orchestration of "The Engulfed Cathedral" is fairy-like and the orchestra play in a manner that wouldn’t be possible today including portamento swoops. I already have several recordings of Stokowski conducting “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.". Astonishingly, he performed it for the first time in Cincinnati in 1912, made the first American recording acoustically in 1924 (PASC 441) and played it for the last time in 1972 at the age of 90. Stokowski said of it "This music is a miracle of delicate, erotic beauty, suggesting a dream-world of pagan loveliness, utterly original, in every way perfect." I first heard the introduction as the theme to the BBC Home Service ‘Children’s Hour’ serial in the early 1960s. Its mysterious beauty has always captivated me. Beecham’s recording (Warner) is very special but so is “Stoki” here on this generously filled disc. The enchantment is also clearly apparent in the extracts from “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” as is Stokowski’s conjuring of the atmosphere of a Spanish fiesta in "Evening in Granada".

What is remarkable, during his three-season tenure with the NBC Symphony, was the extraordinary amount of new music Stokowski programmed and often just for one radio programme and never going back to them. It is to be remembered that he didn’t “discover” Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” until his 80s. “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” is a case in point as is Darius Milhaud's 1st Symphony in what was its New York premiere. Milhaud was very pleased with Stokowski’s performance, describing it as very powerful. After a bizarre radio introduction, (Spanish?) the first movement as described by Rob Barnett as “innocent and intricate charm, pastoral beauty and buoyancy. The rest of the work is unafraid of dissonance and darting conflict. It is sometimes touched - as in the finale - by a neo-classical flightiness”. I know very little of Milhaud although he was one of the favourites of my recently departed mother-in-law (born in 1919) and the work certainly conjures up the French countryside. He and his family were refugees from occupied France, arriving in USA in 1940. The Symphony No. 1 had just been completed, having been commissioned by the Chicago Symphony as one of the works to mark the orchestra’s 50th anniversary celebrations. It was conducted by Milhaud himself on 17 October 1940. Perhaps one can draw a connection with Dvorak, who, fifty years earlier, had drawn on his Czech homeland in the “New World Symphony”. The following movements are certainly dissonant and in the second movement boisterous. The finale has traces of Celtic dance and is quite animated. I did sample the Guild transfer. While listenable, unsurprisingly, the Pristine is much clearer having the quality of a 1950s studio recording. As often, whilst reviewing, I feel that time needs to be given to exploring more of a composer’s oeuvre but there are always other priorities.

This very well filled programme ends with the 2nd Suite from Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe", which was also the concluding work on that particular day's programme. Listening to it, Edward Johnson wonders if the great maestro had glanced at the studio clock and wanted to make sure the broadcast didn't over-run. This work was also recorded elsewhere by Stokowski and like “The Engulfed Cathedral” and "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.", is on a Decca “Masters” set of 5 CDs. There is also a recent complete Decca (23 CDs) set, which, also having Volume 2, I haven’t purchased. For those with little or no Decca Stokowski the complete Decca is certainly worth investigating. The Pristine performance has all the special qualities that made Stokowski unique and conveys the splendour of Ravel’s masterpiece in astonishing sound. The experience must have been very inspiring for listeners in the bleak winter months of early 1943 and this demonstrates the power of music to take one into a different world. There is very fine playing; some very playful and one can imagine the characters at Daybreak. The final movement goes like the clappers and is around 100 seconds quicker than normal. Then again, the orchestra would have been used to Toscanini’s speeds and take Stokowski’s tempi in their stride.

This is a fabulous collection of music from one of the twentieth century’s greatest maestros. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and hope that all lovers of Stokowski and classic performances acquire this. As always, the re-mastering is of the highest order.

David R Dunsmore

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